The Greatest Science Fiction Novels

This article was originally a blog post, published Aug 9, 2007.

Well, the previous post (greatest science fiction movies of all time) was pretty popular, so let’s try a similar tack… how about the greatest science fiction novels of all time? Clearly, we are each entitled to our own definitions of both “science fiction” and “great”. I defined the former last time; but for the latter, I’m going to go with something incorporating a gripping narrative, good writing, a lofty and inspiring idea, and even something to do with the book’s impact on either society and/or the genre.

So here’s my top 5 list:

5. The Martian Chronicles – Technically this is not a novel, but a loosely strung together collection of short stories about the fanciful colonization of Mars, told poetically by one of the original grandmasters, Ray Bradbury. Its science is poor, but its poetry is deep.

4. Second Foundation – The third book of the original Foundation Trilogy, this one brings together all of the amazing initial threads of a grand tale lasting a thousand years. Pure, “golden age” science fiction at its best.

3. Red Mars – Really, this only works if one considers the Mars Trilogy as one great book. Robinson was created a modern, believable tale of the colonization of Mars, injecting politics, economics, human will and fragility in with a strong dose of speculative science.

2. God Emperor of Dune – An odd choice, considering the original Dune is considered to be the classic. But this, the fourth installation, is the grandest, spanning a time frame of tens of thousands of years, and embracing a truly wondrous political, scientific and emotional imagination.

1. A Deepness In The Sky – This probably doesn’t appear on anyone else’s #1, but this to me epitomizes the best of hard science fiction. In it, Vinge tells a tale of truly inspiring scientific imagination, with a gripping narrative told at various levels, any one of which would have been a satisfying novel for a lesser writer.

Honourable mentions:

Gateway, Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama, Startide Rising, War Of The Worlds, The Time Machine, The Illustrated Man, The Robots of Dawn, The Caves of Steel, Dune… the list goes on and on.

Did I miss any? (And no, Neuromancer, doesn’t make the cut.)

11 thoughts on “The Greatest Science Fiction Novels”

  1. I’ll second Martian Chronicles and, well, anything else Bradbury wrote in the genre. I’m also add:

    –Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. The best, in my opinion, is the second, Speaker for the Dead. It’s about the interaction between humans and an alien species and the effects of a pervasive virus on a planet the humans are inhabiting. There’s also sort of a murder mystery.

    –A book coauthored by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg called The Ugly Little Boy about a Neanderthal child that’s brought into the twenty first century and about his relationship with the nanny that’s hired for him. For one, I think the book is a good exploration of the ethical dilemma of conducting science while experimenting on or manipulating human subjects.

  2. Hi there. I enjoyed Ender’s Game, but somehow really couldn’t get thoroughly into it. The Ugly Little Boy had some good ideas. Making a top 5 list is quite challenging. Ultimately, it comes down to what turns us on as individuals. When you throw in other variables, like the quality of writing style and social impact, it gets even harder!

  3. The truth is that I didn’t fall in love with Ender’s Game either (the emphasis on military stuff kind of put me off) but I liked it well enough to pick up the next books in the series, and those are the ones that I really enjoyed. I agree about coming up with top five lists. Trying to come up with any “best of” list is hard and, you’re right, in the end subjective.

  4. Olaf Stapleton’s “First & Last Men”. For time scale even Ian M Banks’ Culture novels seem as brief as a may fly’s life.
    For sheer invention and his trademark wit (though no akshal huour)one of Terry Pratchett’s pre Discworld novels, “Dark Side of the Sun” with an honourable mention (for humour) to “Strata” which was basically a template for the coming Discworld ouvre.

    I thoroughly recommend Discworld series but may I suggest that you first read his non-Disc books as above? Strata before Dark Side.
    Then read Discworld in chronological order. The sheer gut bursting hilarity of the first, “The Colour of Magic” then settles, via “The Light Fantastic” & 30 odd others, into a long lope through the human condition, the idiocies of faith, obedience, scientific banality (one of my favourites is Bloody Stupid Johnson, Discworld’s answer to Isobard Kingdom Brunel & Capapbility Brown), merchantile greed and a slightly misty eyed view of Peelers.
    For sexuality, Sgt Angura often gets her gear off and a neat little treatise “Monstrous Regiment” does John Knox down with precision.

  6. Thanks for sharing this link to inspire new reads. I’m not familiar with all of them and could use some help from readers. Any that stick out for you in the realm of genetic engineering? I’m trying to find some relevant work to my new novel Forty-EightX:The Lemuria Project which is about testing on a new type of soldier.

    Thanks, BP

  7. Barry, congratulations on your novel. Nothing comes to mind with respect to genetic engineering, except of course for Brave New World, with is more about genetic selection. But I haven’t slept in a while, so maybe something obvious will occur to me when I wake up in the morning!

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