I came to sci-fi (and fantasy) through my love of Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who. And after reading a lot of tie-in novels for those universes, I found myself a couple of decades ago wanting to expand my reading palate a bit.
But the question facing me was where do I start? As I skimmed the shelves at my local bookstores and library, every book’s cover shouted at me that it was a “great” sci-fi novel and I should definitely pick it up and read it first.
Luckily, I stumbled across a sci-fi/fantasy book discussion group that met at my local bookstore. It not only gave me a reason to read the book for each month’s discussion, but it also brought me into contact with other sci-fi fans who had more read more than I had to look to for recommendations.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. While I wouldn’t recommend this one for a book group, I still think it’s so influential and so well-known that it’s one everyone should read. It’s fun to read and Adams makes being witty and funny on the printed page look easy. But as many imitators have proven over the years, there was only one Douglas Adams.
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Along with Mary Shelley, Wells helped invent the sci-fi novel. And The Time Machine is one of those books that really never grows old. Showcasing sci-fi’s ability to comment on current political topics, this one is a huge influence on pop culture entries like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone or the new Battlestar Galactica. And it’s a novella, so it’s quick. But it’s one that will linger with you.
- The Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov. Issac Asimov has a huge, influential, well-known and well-regarded series in The Foundation novels. And I love them. But I think Caves of Steel is better. It’s a hybrid sci-fi mystery novel with compelling characters, solid world-building and some intriguing questions and ideas. For me, it’s more accessible and readable to fans coming into the genre than The Foundation books are.
- The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick. Over the years, PKD has served as a huge source of inspiration for big-budget Hollywood movies. But a lot of those adaptations have taken the starting point that PKD uses for his stories and followed a different tangent. It’s not a bad thing, but I don’t feel like it really lets you know why PKD’s books have survived and been so influential. Which brings me to Man in the High Castle, one of the most enjoyable, mind-bending and thought-provoking novels you’ll ever come across. It’s an alternate history where the United States lost World War II and the country has been divided between Japan and the Axis powers. And before you ask, no I’ve not had time to watch the TV series based on it, but it’s on my list of things to be watched.
- Dune by Frank Herbert. Another giant of the old-school sci-fi classics and for good reason. Herbert’s world-building is superb and he respects the intelligence of his readers to put threads together without resorting info-dumps to help you out. And Dune has been a huge influence on a lot of other novels and sci-fi pop culture icons.
- The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. I’m not a huge fan of Heinlein, but even I can admit the man wrote some really good sci-fi stories. (Just avoid his later stuff). This one is one of his best. The story of a revolution taking place on the moon, this one hits on the high points of Heinlein’s world view and philosophy without getting so bogged down in them that it brings the book to a halt. I was torn between this one and one of his “juveniles” (specifically Starship Troopers).
- I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. One the one hand, Matheson has been a huge influence on many modern writers. On the other, this is Matheson expanding the vampire novels without sparkly, romantic vampires. Thirdly, they’ve adapted it many times and never quite got it right. So read the original and see why Matheson is so good, so well regarded and a master storyteller.
- The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold. You’ve got to have a little space opera in there, so why not one of the best? Bujold’s series about Miles Verkosigan is one of the most enjoyable on the market today. I will warn you that these books are addictive with the perfect balance of charm, wit and holy crap, that’s some serious stuff happening in the pages and to our characters.
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Alien invasion stories show up a lot in pop culture. So, why not read one of the original alien invasion novels. It’d be easy to recommend The War of The Worlds, but this one is an alien invasion story with a twist.
- Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Finally, you can’t have a good sci-fi list without at least one military sci-fi book in there. And while Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is arguably the most influential, it’s Scalzi’s first book that is a bit more fun to read. It’s not a barrel of laughs, mind you. But Scalzi’s distinctive style, characters, and approach to military sci-fi makes this one of the best modern genre novels to hit the shelves.
Extra Credit: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I edited by Robert Silverberg. While I’ve got a full list of longer sci-fi here, one thing to remember is that sci-fi often shines best in short story form. And this collection covering 1929 to 1964 has some of the most influential and well-regarded stories by some of the big names in the genre. And the great thing about a short story is if you don’t love one, the next one might be your cup of tea. And they’re a great way to discover “new” (to you) authors to try, either in other stories or novels.