The list below are my selection for the absolute best that Science Fiction has to offer. This is far from an exhaustive list and my choices, and/or exclusions, are bound to cause some disagreement.
I’ve avoided including more than one book in the same series, although one author does appear twice. Those who know me, or have seen my bookshelves, will not be surprised by his inclusion.
This list is also limited to books that I have read, there are some mighty works of Science Fiction that I simply haven’t got to yet. As a result of this, the list may change over time.
If you’ve got any suggestions for additions, then do let me know in the comments. I love discussing books and am happy to take reading suggestions if you think a true travesty has been committed.
1 – Dune – Frank Herbert
Hopefully, this is an inarguable choice for the top spot. This book is simply fantastic.
Operating on a grand scale from start to finish, Herbert’s story of Paul, the young son of Duke Leto Atriedes, becoming first Maud’Dib, a feared renegade leader, and then the Kwisatz Haderach, a being capable of accessing his genetic memory as well as prescient visions of the future, has been an icon of the genre since its first release. From Galactic war to inner personal conflict, this book ticks every box for a Science Fiction fan. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
2 – Foundation – Isaac Asimov
Asimov is one of the genre’s all time greats. Getting his start in the era of monthly magazines, Foundation (and the following two books in the series) is actually a collection of shorter pieces that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine.
The original pitch was to write a series set in a declining Galactic Empire, loosely based on the fall of the Roman Empire.
Asimov not only brilliantly charts the decadence and decay that could lead to fall of such an enormous Galactic institution, but also tells a story of rebirth and hope for the future, all based around his fictional science of psychohistory. Psychohistory is the science of predicting the future by statistical analysis of human actions, only by working with samples the size of a galactic population can the statistical significance of a single persons actions be reduced to the point of irrelevance.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a dry, mathematical history series (although Asimov’s background as a scientist himself clearly informs this aspect) but rather the story is told on a personal level, with bold characters experiencing times of dramatic upheaval. Of course, there is a trademark Asimov reveal at the end of every part.
We could easily have included any of the original three books in the Foundation Trilogy as entries on this list, but Foundation was the first and where it all began so it ultimately gets the nod.
3 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Where do you even begin when trying to explain the phenomenon that is Hitchhiker’s guide?
Adams’ best known work is madcap, manic, irreverent, nonsensical, hilarious and beautifully written, among many other adjectives we could use.
The very basic premise seems familiar, the protagonist, Arthur Dent, discovers that the Earth is about to be destroyed and his best friend, Ford Prefect, is actually an alien who offers him an escape route. Together they flee the Earth and journey across the galaxy.
However, that’s as much normality as can be seen in Hitchhiker’s. Rather than some existential threat or invading alien species, the Earth is scheduled for scheduled for destruction to make way for an intergalactic bypass. And that’s just where the weirdness begins.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted across every medium imaginable, with a radio series, a tv series and a film released. However, what many readers don’t realise is that the book itself was not the original format. The BBC radio series was, in fact, the original production and the novelisation followed.
Part of Douglas Adams’ absolutely maniacal genius, is that with each iteration the story was rewritten, quite majorly. Therefore the books, radio series, TV series and film all diverge from the central premise in a wonderful mismash of nonsense. There is no original canon and later hated untrue versions. It’s all contradictory and it’s all correct.
Read the book. Watch the film. Listen to the radio show. It doesn’t matter where you start, but if you’ve missed out on Hitchhiker’s guide so far in your life, it’s time to get involved.
4 – Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is another absolute masterwork. Often now classed in Young Adult fiction, it’s worth a read at any age.
Card’s protagonist, Ender Wiggin, is wonderfully written, dealing with the outsider feelings so common in children of his age, especially the gifted ones.
It’s commonly listed among reader’s favourite books as Ender was a character that they were able to relate with, helping them through their own issues in their youth. But to hold that up as the highlight of the book would be doing it a disservice. I read this book much later in life, long past the point where any relation to Ender would be the primary takeaway.
Rather, it is a beautifully written coming of age story, set in a fascinating world on the edge of conflict. The background of a world undergoing a cultural revolution is a prophetic insight into the world of modern day online “influencers” considering that Card was writing back in the early eighties.
A winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, this book is globally recognised as an outstanding piece of writing. It is worth mentioning that many readers consider the sequel, Speaker for the Dead (itself a Hugo and Nebula winner), to be the better of the two.
Card’s “Enderverse” now consists of fifteen novels, two novellas and a short story collection, so there’s plenty to get to grips with here.
5 – Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
I’m surprised that this book isn’t seen on more Science Fiction lists, perhaps it isn’t considered among the classics of the genre. It really should be.
Crichton’s creation is embedded in popular culture for spawning one of the most popular films of all time, and a film franchise of rapidly decreasing quality, yet few people seem to recommend the book.
The film is, surprisingly, very true to the original work and the plot follows the same lines. The film is rather more action oriented and leaves out a lot of the scientific and philosophical discussion of the implications of the creation of the park that really lifts the book into the status of one of the top Sci-Fi reads of all time.
It’s not one of those where you should read the book before watching the film because, let’s be honest, you’ve already seen it. You should read the book, it expands upon the action of the film and adds great depth to the narrative.
6 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
Another entry on the list better known as its film adaptation. However, far from the roaring success of Jurassic Park, the adaptation of I Am Legend was an acceptable film, nothing better.
The reason for the disappointment was a simple one. The film completely ruined the ending of the book. I won’t give it away here by explaining what the film did wrong, but the ending of I Am Legend is what gives meaning to everything that came before. Without the original ending, it would be a fairly standard post-apocalyptic survival tale.
The story follows Robert Neville as the last man on Earth, but he is not alone. Haunted and hunted by vampires, it is the story of his survival against increasingly insurmountable odds.
This is actually a very short read, but well worth it.
7 – 1984 – George Orwell
George Orwell’s 1984, has there ever been a book to more completely permeate the national subconscious? People quote this book every day without realising it, “Big Brother”, “Room 101”, these phrases have entered the vocabulary of millions.
This book is the absolute pinnacle of dystopian fiction, and incredibly influential to this day.
Orwell’s book is depressing and oppressive in its vision of the future, a prophetic view that seems to be coming closer and closer each day.
This is not just a good book, or even a great book, it is more than that. 1984 is an important book. Everyone should read it. It speaks about the dangers of nationalism, and the impacts of censorship and surveillance. We can all take away important lessons from 1984.
8 – I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
This entry on the list is Asimov’s second, and that fact alone should speak volumes about his status in the field. Like Foundation above, I, Robot is actually a collection of short stories rather than a fully fledged novel.
Later on in his works Asimov actually began linking the two worlds into a larger galactic narrative spanning millennia, although none of this adds or takes away from the early works.
Asimov’s robot creations are well known, positronic brains, the Three Laws of Robotics, they’ve had enormous impact within the field. These stories are built of the basic premise of the existence of these robots within his world but then are really answering a series of questions. Given the world and rules that Asimov has created, what would happen if?
What would happen if Robots are introduced to the home?
What would happen if the Laws of Robotics are at odds?
What would happen if Robots found religion?
It’s fascinating series of works that ponders questions about the nature of humanity, life, and philosophy all delivered with Asimov’s unquestionable genius.
9 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke
Rendezvous with Rama is a masterpiece of Science Fiction from one of the masters of the genre.
It is Science Fiction at its most pure, no laser guns or space battles, no political machinations and interplanetary negotiation, no genetic trials, no chosen one. Instead it takes us back to that most essential of Science Fiction principles, facing the unknown.
An unknown object is spotted approaching the solar system and a team of astronauts is sent to investigate. What ensues is an almost Hitchcockian building of suspense as they encounter something so familiar, and yet intensely alien.
The real beauty of this book is in the unexplained mystery. Clarke doesn’t try to feed you a story or long lengths of exposition about the origins of the unidentified vessel. We know what the explorers know, and discover as they do.
I must confess that despite their being three sequels to Rendezvous with Rama from Clarke, and two more set in the same universe by Gentry Lee, I’ve never read them. Rendezvous left me with a sense of mystery that I fear may be spoilt by further reading. I’ll bite the bullet and read them soon, I promise.
10 – Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley’s classic is often more classed as horror than Science Fiction, but a mad scientist creating a new form of life sounds pretty Sci Fi to me.
First published in 1818, more than two hundred years ago, it continues to be relevant to this day. From Dr Frankenstein’s creation of the monster, to the dark and tragic ending, Frankenstein is a morality tale, wrapped up in adventure and horror.
There’s no denying the impact this book has had, everyone knows who Frankenstein is (even if they mistakenly think it’s the Creature), but fewer people have actually read the book.
It’s well worth it.