10 Essential Science Fiction Novels

Isaac Asimov

A collection of five short stories make up this novel about scientists who have learned how to accurately predict the future using “psychohistory,” a mixture of mathematics, history, and sociology. Having predicted a coming dark age that can only be shortened, but not avoided, the scientists strive to preserve as much knowledge as possible. When civilization finally returns, one thousand chaotic years in the future, it won’t have to start over from scratch. Foundation and its first two sequels are often considered the greatest science fiction trilogy ever written.

William Gibson

Neuromancer kicks off William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy,” which is generally credited with igniting the cyberpunk movement. It’s also widely considered to be the other great science fiction trilogy. Case was a hacker who made the mistake of skimming from his employers. They found out and crippled his central nervous system, which prevented him from jacking into the matrix ever again. The story opens as he searches for a cure to his affliction. Soon, a mysterious figure named Armitage hires him and pays for the reconstruction of his nevous system… which sets into motion one of the greatest adventures ever written. A Time Magazine choice for its list of The All-Time Top 100 English-Language Novels. Winner of the Hugo for Best Novel in 1985.

Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke

It’s a surprise Rendezvous with Rama has never been adapted into a movie, not that several powerful Hollywood figures haven’t tried; Morgan Freeman has owned the film rights for several years and wants David Fincher to direct. In the novel, a large cylindrical object that astronomers dub Rama is making its way through our solar system. Commander Norton’s survey ship just happens to be close enough to rendezvous. He and his crew manage to get inside Rama and find out that it’s a huge artificial world that appears to be dead. One day, it begins to wake up. Winner of the Hugo for Best Novel in 1974.

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Larry Niven

It’s the year 2855 and, on his 200th birthday, Louis Wu is contacted by a two-headed alien from a race known for their advanced technology and extreme cowardice. The alien wants Louis Wu and others to explore a mysterious, artificial world that’s shaped like a ring, which makes you wonder how Niven came up with the book’s title. If you thought that Rama was mind-boggling, Ringworld is over 900,000 miles in width and supports the surface area of millions of Earths. Other members of the expedition include an eight foot tall, cat-like creature with an appetite for war, and Teela Brown, a young woman whose ancestral heritage (she comes from a long line of “birth lottery” winners) may have evolved a trait that makes her a human good luck charm. Winner of the Hugo for Best Novel in 1971.

Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson

Several years after Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson came along and injected something radically new into cyberpunk. Written in the early nineties, Snow Crash imagines “The Metaverse,” an online world where humans control avatars. Combining loads of humorous characters and a meticulous research of Sumerian myth, the story involves human brain hacks. Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery boy for the Mafia, finds himself smack dab in the middle of the chaos. Oh, and the bad guy drives around with a nuclear weapon in the sidecar of his motorcycle. A Time Magazine choice for its list of The All-Time Top 100 English-Language Novels.

Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim is a WWII veteran who becomes “unstuck in time” and bounces around between several key events: his life before the war, the war itself, his life after the war, and his abduction by aliens who want to study him and a pornstar in the zoo contained aboard their spaceship. Pilgrim also knows exactly when and how he dies. Vonnegut himself appears as a character in the story, which hinges on the firebombing of Dresden, a moment in history he personally experienced. One of Time Magazine’s choice for the Top 100 English-Language Novels. Nominated for the Hugo for Best Novel in 1970.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams

Hands down the funniest novel that science fiction has to offer, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide begins when Arthur Dent’s best friend, Ford Prefect, reveals that he’s actually an alien hitchhiker and that the world is about to be destroyed. They hitch a ride on an alien spacecraft and Arthur quickly finds himself thrust into one whacky world after another. Want to know the meaning to life, the universe, and everything? Then read this book. (Just don’t forget your towel.)

Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert Heinlein

Heinlein’s masterpiece transcends what many casual readers think is science fiction. The “Martian” who comes to Earth in this story is Valentine Michael Smith, the offspring of two very human astronauts who visited the red planet. His parents died, along with the rest of the crew, and he was the sole survivor. He was raised by the real Martians and, when he returns to Earth, finds that he is only a man in ancestry and “a Martian by environment.” Winner of the Hugo for Best Novel in 1962.

Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell

Don’t let the title fool you; the overbearing, totalitarian government in Orwell’s masterpiece has rewritten history so much, the novel may not actually be set in 1984. It can be any year they want you to believe it is. Winston Smith is employed by Big Brother not as a history writer, but as a history re-writer and editor. Unauthorized love and curiosity and a desire for freedom are sure ways to find yourself “undone” (in other words, erased from history) and it just so happens that those are the three characteristics that Winston is afflicted with. A Time Magazine choice for its list of The All-Time Top 100 English-Language Novels.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick

Only Stephen King has had more book adaptations than Philip K. Dick. Like King, a few of the PKD adaptations are really good (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly), but an awful lot of them are bad (Next, Paycheck, Screamers). In this novel, PKD imagines a future in which the world has become dangerously polluted and the fortunate humans have moved to the planet Mars. Rick Deckard isn’t one of those fortunate humans. He lives on Earth and hunts androids who have revolted against their slavery.