I’ve always loved sci-fi movies and television, but for whatever reason my reading habits have been drastically skewed towards fantasy for most of my life. However, since making the move from Columbus to San Diego I’ve been reading a ton of science fiction. I guess the drastic shift in location has inspired me to shift my reading interests as well (at least temporarily).
The list below is comprised of the books and series I’ve been most impressed with since diving head long into my current sci-fi binge. Of course there are going to be a lot of great books that are not included here, but that’s probably just because I’m not aware of them yet. So please, feel free to fill me in by leaving a comment below!
20 Essential Sci-Fi Books & Series
Note: I’ve arranged the list below in alphabetical order instead of by rank or favorites. All of the book descriptions are either from the books themselves or copied from Amazon.
2001: A Space Odyssey
When an enigmatic monolith is found buried on the moon, scientists are amazed to discover that it’s at least 3 million years old. Even more amazing, after it’s unearthed the artifact releases a powerful signal aimed at Saturn.
What sort of alarm has been triggered? To find out, a manned spacecraft, the Discovery, is sent to investigate. Its crew is highly trained–the best–and they are assisted by a self-aware computer, the ultra-capable HAL 9000. But HAL’s programming has been patterned after the human mind a little too well
He is capable of guilt, neurosis, even murder, and he controls every single one of Discovery’s components. The crew must overthrow this digital psychotic if they hope to make their rendezvous with the entities that are responsible not just for the monolith, but maybe even for human civilization.
At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness is a brilliantly told horror novel. Best of all, it’s a “perfect” Lovecraft story, combining everything that makes Lovecraft … well, ‘Lovecraftian:’ constant impending dread, mysteries beyond time and space, characters driven to the brink of — and then beyond — insanity, and science knocking at the doors of the nightmarish unknown.
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley is rightly considered a prophetic genius and one of the most important literary and philosophical voices of the 20th Century, and Brave New World is his masterpiece. From the author of The Doors of Perception, Island, and countless other works of fiction, non-fiction, philosophy, and poetry, comes this powerful work of speculative fiction that has enthralled and terrified readers for generations.
Brave New World remains absolutely relevant to this day as both a cautionary dystopian tale in the vein of the George Orwell classic 1984, and as thought-provoking, thoroughly satisfying entertainment.
The Overlords appeared suddenly over every city–intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to humankind. Benevolent, they made few demands: unify earth, eliminate poverty, and end war. With little rebellion, humankind agreed, and a golden age began.
But at what cost? With the advent of peace, man ceases to strive for creative greatness, and a malaise settles over the human race. To those who resist, it becomes evident that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. As civilization approaches the crossroads, will the Overlords spell the end for humankind . . . or the beginning?
When a designer of computer games dies, he leaves behind a program that unravels the Internet’s interconnected world. It corrupts, kills, and runs independent of human control. It’s up to Detective Peter Sebeck to wrest the world from the malevolent virtual enemy before its ultimate purpose is realized: to destroy civilization…
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The inspiration for Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968. Grim and foreboding, even today it is a masterpiece ahead of its time.
By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans.
Emigrées to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in.
Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.
Here is the novel that will be forever considered a triumph of the imagination.
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family–and would bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what it undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.
In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut–young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.
Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers, Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister.
Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world. If the world survives, that is.
Few creatures of horror have seized readers’ imaginations and held them for so long as the anguished monster of Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story of Victor Frankenstein’s monstrous creation and the havoc it caused has enthralled generations of readers and inspired countless writers of horror and suspense.
In his phenomenal debut, Daemon, Daniel Suarez introduced a terrifying vision of an unstoppable computer program unleashed on our world by a hi-tech wunderkind. But now, our world is Daemon’s world- unless someone stops the program once and for all…
Unmanned weaponized drones already exist—they’re widely used by America in our war efforts in the Middle East. In Kill Decision, bestselling author Daniel Suarez takes that fact and the real science behind it one step further, with frightening results.
Linda McKinney is a myrmecologist, a scientist who studies the social structure of ants. Her academic career has left her entirely unprepared for the day her sophisticated research is conscripted by unknown forces to help run an unmanned—and thanks to her research, automated—drone army. Odin is the secretive Special Ops soldier with a unique insight into the faceless enemy who has begun to attack the American homeland with drones programmed to seek, identify, and execute targets without human intervention.
Together, McKinney and Odin must slow this advance long enough for the world to recognize its destructive power, because for thousands of years the “kill decision” during battle has remained in the hands of humans—and off-loading that responsibility to machines will bring unintended, possibly irreversible, consequences. But as forces even McKinney and Odin don’t understand begin to gather, and death rains down from above, it may already be too late to save humankind from destruction at the hands of our own technology.
The Matrix is a world within the world, a global consensus- hallucination, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace . . .
Case had been the sharpest data-thief in the business, until vengeful former employees crippled his nervous system. But now a new and very mysterious employer recruits him for a last-chance run. The target: an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence orbiting Earth in service of the sinister Tessier-Ashpool business clan. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case embarks on an adventure that ups the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
Hotwired to the leading edges of art and technology, Neuromancer ranks with 1984 and Brave New World as one of the century’s most potent visions of the future.
Rendezvous With Rama
At first, only a few things are known about the celestial object that astronomers dub Rama. It is huge, weighing more than ten trillion tons. And it is hurtling through the solar system at inconceivable speed. Then a space probe confirms the unthinkable: Rama is no natural object. It is, incredible, an interstellar spacecraft. Space explorers and planet-bound scientists alike prepare for mankind’s first encounter with alien intelligence. It will kindle their wildest dreams… and fan their darkest fears. For no one knows who the Ramans are or why they have come. And now the moment of rendezvous awaits — just behind a Raman airlock door.
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
Only once in a great while does a writer come along who defies comparison—a writer so original he redefines the way we look at the world. Neal Stephenson is such a writer and Snow Crash is such a novel, weaving virtual reality, Sumerian myth, and just about everything in between with a cool, hip cybersensibility to bring us the gigathriller of the information age.
In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a future America so bizarre, so outrageous…you’ll recognize it immediately.
The Forever War
The Earth’s leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand–despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties and do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But “home” may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries…
The Foundation Trilogy
The Foundation Series is a science fiction series by Isaac Asimov. The series is best known for the Foundation Trilogy, which comprises the books Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. In 1965, the Foundation Trilogy beat several other science fiction and fantasy series (including The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien) to receive a special Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series.” It is still the only series so honored. Asimov himself wrote that he assumed the one-time award had been created to honor The Lord of the Rings, and he was amazed when his work won.
A saga of enormous scope and boundless imagination, Isaac Asimov’s Hugo-winning Foundation Trilogy is one of the great masterworks of science fiction. Set 50,000 years in the future, it tells of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire and the history of a universal ruling organization created to reduce the duration of the coming Dark Age.
Foundation introduces mathematician Hari Seldon, whose science of psychohistory can predict the future on a colossal scale. But what Hari foresees is an empire’s collapse and an age of barbarism lasting 30,000 years. Gathering the finest minds in the galaxy, he devises a Plan to preserve the collective knowledge of the human race…only to find that the Foundation itself is under seige.
In Foundation and Empire, the Foundation has attained power, but can it prevail against an ambitious young general determined to restore the Empire to its former glory, or a mutant intelligence whose mysterious power to bend minds to his will not even Hari Seldon could have predicted?
In Second Foundation, the mutant sets out to find the last threat to his power: a secretly evolved Second Foundation, whose colony of telepaths the First Foundation also wants destroyed.
The Illustrated Man
Ray Bradbury brings wonders alive. For this peerless American storyteller, the most bewitching force in the universe is human nature. In these eighteen startling tales unfolding across a canvas of tattooed skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets. Provocative and powerful, The Illustrated Man is a kaleidoscopic blending of magic, imagination, and truth—as exhilarating as interplanetary travel, as maddening as a walk in a million-year rain, and as comforting as simple, familiar rituals on the last night of the world.
The Martian Chronicles
In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, America’s preeminent storyteller, imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor— of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race. In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.
The Thrawn Trilogy
Five years after the fall of the Empire, Luke Skywalker is the first in a new line of Jedi Knights. Han Solo and Princess Leia have married, together assuming many burdens of the New Republic’s government. But across the galaxy lies a dying part of the Empire – all the more dangerous near death – and it has just discovered something that could bring it back to life! The last of the Emperor’s warlords, Admiral Thrawn, is ready to destroy the New Republic – and the odds are stacked heavily against Luke, Leia, and Han!
What Are Your Favorite Sci-Fi Books & Series?
Lately I’ve been extremely inspired by all things science, space and future tech. In the last sixty days or so I’ve read most of the books on this list and it’s been an amazing journey full of mind-blowing literary vision. At my current breakneck reading speed I’m going to run out of great sci-fi books pretty soon. Maybe that’s a sign that I need to mix it up again, eh?
Anyways, I’d love to know what you consider essential sci-fi and I’ll add it to my personal reading list. If it makes a big impact I’ll amend this post and give you credit for the recommendation :)
Feature Image Credit: Hubble Telescope