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My sci-fi novel recommendations
You asked, and so you shall receive!
People have been asking me for a list of science fiction book recommendations for a while now. My new podcast with Brad DeLong goes pretty deep into sci-fi geekery, so I thought now would be a good time.
One of the themes of this blog is techno-optimism, and science fiction helps us envision not just the promise of technology, but its pitfalls as well — so we can avoid them. In addition to being fun and cool, sci-fi provides inspiration for engineers and entrepreneurs, and allows policymakers and intellectuals to think about how to shape the world that we create with technology. If we ever lose our love of science fiction, that will be the day that we retreat from the future.
So here’s a list of 30 favorites. Not a comprehensive list, and not in order, but just a few to get you started. Note that every one of these book recommendations is also an author recommendation; everything these folks write is worth reading. Also note that though the title of the post says “novel recommendations”, some of these are actually collections of short stories. And remember, if your favorite book didn’t make the list, it might be because I haven’t read it!
The Zones of Thought books, by Vernor Vinge
This is the series that inspired the name of my podcast with Brad, so it should probably go first. A Fire Upon the Deep, the first book in this series, is some of the wildest, most titanic space opera you’ll ever read, while also managing to be extremely nerdy and chock full of fun references (the most entertaining being a galactic communications network suspiciously similar to Usenet). The sequel, A Deepness in the Sky, is actually the much better-written book, and just might be my favorite sci-fi novel of all time. It’s actually a paean to the marvels of 20th century science, disguised as a gripping tale about a space war against interstellar mind-controlling fascist Belgians. And the swashbuckling explorer/entrepreneur/messiah Pham Nuwen is one of the great sci-fi protagonists of all time.
Read this if you like: Space adventure, aliens, capitalism, computer geekery
The Vorkosigan saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This might be the greatest sci-fi book series of all time. It’s a series of intrigues, space adventures, mysteries, and comedies, centered around a liberal family struggling to reform a conservative empire. Astute observers will recognize that Tyrion Lannister was probably slightly inspired by Miles Vorkosigan. I’m truly amazed that no one has talked about making this into a Netflix series yet. I have several friends who read the entire series multiple times in a row after I recommended it. My advice is to start with Barrayar, then move on to The Warrior’s Apprentice.
In addition to how great of a read it is, I find the Vorkosigan saga’s take on humanity’s future to be subtly, subversively bold. The basic thesis — never stated, but always implied — is that technology opens up possibilities for humans to be better people. Perhaps the most techno-optimistic idea of all.
Read this if you like: Fun space adventure, heartwarming stuff
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
If the Vorkosigan Saga envisions technology making humanity better, Oryx and Crake envisions the exact opposite. This is a biopunk dystopia apocalypse story about a future where capitalism and alienating technology and good old human cruelty have combined to make everyone just bad. And then one mad genius decides to do something about it. I have to say, if there’s one sci-fi villain I personally identify with, it’s Crake.
One other thing about this book: Surprisingly few authors can do really authentic cross-gender characters, but Atwood just nails it.
Read this if you like: Biopunk, near-future dystopia, the apocalypse, anti-capitalism
Hyperion + The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Dan Simmons loves classical literature, and the Hyperion books are basically him rolling all of the classics of 20th century sci-fi into one sprawling epic, then sprinkling it with a dash of old British poetry. Almost every subgenre is represented here — space opera, cyberpunk, time travel, horror, ecofiction, etc. And yet it’s not just an ode to the classics, as Simmons comes up with quite a few original and far-out ideas of his own. It’s very difficult to describe the story — the first book is a take-off on the Canterbury Tales, the second brings all the separate stories together. You just have to read it. Anyway, this is one of the all-time classics, for good reason. (Note: I’m not as much of a fan of the Endymion sequels.)
Read this if you like: Literally any sci-fi, classic British poetry
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
I think of this book as sort of the sci-fi capstone of the American Century (maybe along with the TV series Babylon 5). It’s a tale of how We Won The War, because we are the people who believe in Science and Technology and Freedom and manly men who do manly things! It’s about how you can be an awkward nerd or an ass-kicking jock and still be ok! If you want to know how America saw itself at the end of the 1990s, read this book.
But, beyond all that, this is just a really amazing book. It’s over 1000 pages long, crammed with nerdy goodness like cryptography, hacking, the invention of the computer, and so on. It also has some of the best actual writing in any sci-fi book I’ve ever read, with layers of subtlety and deep characterization that you’ll miss if you just read it as a rambling geeky adventure story. Cryptonomicon will take a month of your time, but it’s worth it.
Read this if you like: Historical fiction, cryptography, computer geeks, America
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
In addition to being my favorite time travel book, this is also the best novel I’ve read about slavery. Which makes it a hard book to read, but well worth it. The basic plot is that a Black woman from the 70s gets sent back in time to save and protect her ancestor. Only, problem…her ancestor is a White slaveowner rapist. It’s a story about how the past takes a piece out of us that we never get back. Anyway, Butler is an amazing writer, and you should probably read everything she ever wrote.
Read this if you like: Time travel, historical fiction
Schismatrix Plus, by Bruce Sterling
This book gets lumped in with cyberpunk, but it’s really not cyberpunk. Instead, it’s a wild, episodic journey around a future Solar System in the middle of a technological Singularity. The protagonist, whom I identify with pretty deeply, is just a guy who goes around finding one thing after another to get involved with — always looking to sidestep the onrushing future and find the next cool trip. The sheer breadth of far-out cool sci-fi ideas and cultures he encounters on his rambling journey makes this feel like multiple books in one. This setting also somehow reminds me of Austin, Texas back in the 80s and 90s — the sort of Wild West feeling combined with techno-optimism and plenty of weirdos. Kind of a Slacker in space. Which makes sense, because Bruce Sterling is from Texas.
Read this if you like: Posthumanism, weirdos, space
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow
What would society look like if we solved all our problems and had to create new ones for ourselves? Probably a lot like Canadian hipster society. This short book — almost a novella, really — is about a post-scarcity society where people are increasingly filled with ineffable ennui. It’s also widely credited with inspiring Facebook’s “like” button (and by extension, much of modern social media). It’s also the source of my favorite quote about human culture: “This place is not a historical preserve…it’s a ride.”
Read this if you like: Near-future utopia, Canadian hipsters
The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee
This is some far-out, wacky stuff. Imagine a universe where the laws of physics can be changed into anything you want, depending on which calendar people use. It’s a place where anything can happen, and frequently does. This series, written in the 2010s, really resurrects the psychedelic 60s sci-fi of Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany. It’s just a nonstop wild ride.
Read this if you like: vengeance, space opera, LSD
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Charlie Jane Anders is one of the great writers of our time. You should have kids just so you can read Charlie Jane Anders books to them. Anyway, this book is actually science fantasy, with some sci-fi elements and some magic bits. It’s about a mad scientist and a witch growing up in conservative 1980s America, who become best friends and later save the world. It is, to put it bluntly, one of the most beautiful books ever written.
Read this if you like: Sci-fi fantasy mashups, humor, love, crying on your couch
Permutation City, by Greg Egan
Greg Egan once solved an important outstanding math problem together with some random anime fan from a forum — and it was about permutations! That has nothing to do with this book except the coincidental relationship to the title, but it’s really cool. Anyway, Permutation City is the most mind-blowing science fiction book I have ever read, which changed the way I think about human nature, personality, and reality. If you want to have your brain blown right out the back of your skull, read this book! The actual subject matter is personality upload, and not much happens except that people discover the true nature of reality, life, death, individuality, time, and consciousness. Oh, and every chapter title is an anagram (i.e. a permutation) of the book title — and they all at least sort of make sense. Did I mention Greg Egan is smart?
Read this book if you like: Singularity sci-fi, metaphysics
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Yes, it’s Blade Runner, but really it’s not. Both the movie and the book upon which the movie is loosely based are about the theme of what separates human beings from robots, but they approach the question in entirely different ways. The book basically advances the idea that being human is about caring about things that you know will never care about you back. It’s not a neon-drenched cyberpunk future — it’s a dying world in the wake of a nuclear holocaust where people’s only solace is robot pets and weird cults and creepy TV shows. It’s possibly the bleakest book I’ve ever read — bleaker than 1984, bleaker than Oryx and Crake. But it’s also strangely beautiful and inspirational. Personally, I like it a lot better than the movie.
Read this if you like: Post-apocalyptic fiction, robots
Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang might be the greatest sci-fi short story writer of our time. One of the stories in this excellent collection was adapted into the movie Arrival. Anyway, the stories are all really great, and you should read them. They’re high-concept stuff that also manage to have excellent characters.
Read this if you like: Short stories, high-concept sci-fi
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
This classic series (start with Startide Rising and then move on to The Uplift War) is all about the destiny of humanity. I’ve long believed that instead of seeing humanity as having fallen from a past state of greatness or grace, we should venerate our ancestors’ long, hard climb up out of the muck of animal existence. This series focuses on dolphins and chimpanzees that humans have reengineered to have human-level intelligence, who now have to help humans fight a desperate war against religious alien fanatics. It’s a fun romp, but also a deep meditation on history, ancestry, and collective purpose. The Uplift books have probably inspired my personal philosophy more than any other sci-fi novels.
Read this if you like: Space opera, animals
Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by Liu Cixin
From China’s Cultural Revolution to a war against godlike aliens to an apocalyptic cult to a guy traveling around with his imaginary girlfriend, this series — beginning with the acclaimed Three Body — is one of the most sprawling and multifaceted sci-fi epics ever written. The theme of the book is whether human beings deserve to live. In fact, I’ve only read the first two, which are both excellent in completely different ways. Despite their epic scope, the books often take time out to tell small, human stories, sometimes with a dash of magical realism. Really, there’s just nothing like this series in existence.
Read this if you like: Sweeping epics, aliens, China
Metaplanetary + Superluminal, by Tony Daniel
This is probably the most obscure item on this list. If you’ve already read these, congrats, you probably don’t need this list at all! Anyway, these two books — the beginning of a series from the early 2000s that was never completed — fall in the “far-out space stuff” genre along with A Fire Upon the Deep and Schismatrix. Very typical of the age in which they were written, they are bursting with creativity, nerdy references, exciting action, and effusive techno-optimism. The books also have one of the coolest visions of posthumanity I’ve ever read, rivaling Greg Egan.
Read this if you like: Space opera, posthumanism
Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami
Battle Royale is one of my favorite movies of all time. The book it’s adapted from is also really excellent, for mostly different reasons. Set in an alternate timeline in which Japan wins WW2 and becomes a totalitarian nightmare state, Battle Royale follows a class of teenagers who are put on an island and forced to fight each other to the death. If that sounds like it was the inspiration for The Hunger Games, it’s because it is. But Battle Royale is infinitely better. The most amazing thing about this book is how it manages to make each kid a deep, realistic, fleshed-out character (usually before they are unceremoniously killed). But it also evinces a deeply humanistic philosophy of society inspired by the Japanese socialist and communist movements.
Read this if you like: Dystopia, thrillers, Japanese stuff
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
What would happen if a giant asteroid hit the Earth and knocked us back to a pre-industrial civilization? Lucifer’s Hammer is the best book I know of with this sort of plot. It’s very grounded in the 80s, so it might seem a bit dated (no internet!), but the ways in which it depicts society breaking down are all too horrifyingly realistic. There are few books that will make you appreciate the value of modern industrial society as much as this one. The politics are fairly Reaganite-conservative, typical of the era.
Read this if you like: Disaster fiction
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
Bloomberg actually let me write a column about this book! It’s about a future America that’s falling apart for no particular reason, and a girl who fights against despair and social disintegration by fixating on the idea of interstellar exploration. The defiant optimism in the face of calamity is definitely something the world could use right now. The saga of poor people trying to escape a dying Los Angeles is also among the more gripping plots I’ve read.
Read this if you like: Near-future dystopia
Babel-17, by Samuel Delany
You should really read everything Samuel Delany every wrote. This is his most accessible and arguably his best book (sorry, Dhalgren fans!). It’s a fun space opera adventure set in a universe where language exerts incredibly strong control over human thought and society. What if star empires rose and fell depending on whether languages had a mechanism for describing yourself in first person? That’s the kind of far-out wild stuff that Delay specializes in.
Read this if you like: Space adventure, far-out stuff
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The ultimate work of social sci-fi, The Dispossessed is ostensibly about the invention of faster-than-light communication, but really it’s about anarchism. From a kibbutz-like moon where anarcho-communists have abolished property rights to an industrial world where anarchist street movements provide the only real check on government tyranny, The Dispossessed explores how utopian ideologies can make society better even if they never quite work.
Read this if you like: Social sci-fi, anarchism
Burning Chrome, by William Gibson
I love everything William Gibson ever wrote, and of course Neuromancer is the classic, but for some reason it’s this collection of short stories that really defines the cyberpunk genre in my mind. There’s no purer, more distilled cyberpunk in existence than the titular story, “Burning Chrome”. But every story is just pure gold.
Read this if you like: Short stories, cyberpunk
Nexus, by Ramez Naam
The world has not yet reckoned with the importance of neurotechnology, but when it does, I hope people will realize that Ramez Naam was among the first to sketch out the awe-inspiring possibilities. Nexus is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of gun battles and international plots and evil techno-gods vs. peaceful techno-hippie communes and other fun stuff. It’s also one of the most visionary pieces of techno-futurism I’ve read. I love books that blow your mind while also delivering a good yarn, and this is one of them. Read the sequels too, of course.
Read this if you like: Cyberpunk, thrillers
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner
Written in the 1960s, this just might be the most accurate future-predicting novel of all time. So much about our present — inequality, urban unrest, random mass killings, genetic engineering, the U.S.-China rivalry — is in this book. The only big thing it whiffed on was population growth (it projected a world rapidly running out of space). Anyway, for a dose of eerily prophetic fun 60s sci-fi, check out this book
Read this if you like: Near-future dystopia
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Probably the archetypical climate fiction book. The Windup Girl envisions a world that hasn’t collapsed, but where climate change is just slowly making everything harder and everyone poorer. And in this world of scarcity, modern pro-social behavior has largely gone out the window, in favor of scrabbling selfishness. It’s a dark meditation on how resource limits bring out the worst in humanity.
Read this if you like: Ecofiction, near-future dystopia
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
This is a novel about grad school! It’s set in a world where universities are monastic, quasi-religious institutions, and how some students from one of these institutions help save the world when some very powerful aliens show up and start doing mean stuff. Anyway, this is one of the most creative sci-fi novels I’ve read, really defying any sort of established genre and making up a bunch of tropes out of whole cloth. The ending, while supremely satisfying, is also a beautiful joke about Neal Stephenson’s legendary inability to write a satisfying ending.
Read this if you like: Nerdiness, stories about grad school, alien invasion
The Martian, by Andy Weir
The “hardest” of hard sci-fi, The Martian almost entirely relies on real science (except for an unrealistic storm used as a plot device at the beginning). It’s a smart, funny, gripping, harrowing tale of survival. Better, in my opinion, than the movie adaptation.
Read this if you like: Survival stories, hard sci-fi, astronauts
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The ultimate science fiction about drugs. Philip K. Dick really nails the drug culture with this one (a subject about which he had all too much first-hand experience). If you ever needed a reason not to get into drugs, this book will give you one. But it’s also a great book about the security state, universal surveillance, and the subjective nature of reality.
Read this if you like: Near-future dystopia
Blindsight, by Peter Watts
Blindsight is about very very scary aliens, but also about the nature of consciousness. I love books that combine nifty sci-fi with mind-bending philosophy with a readable, gripping plot.
Read this if you like: Aliens, philosophy, horror
1984, by George Orwell
If you haven’t read the greatest dystopian novel of all time, well then, read it. And then try to think of how we can make sure our world doesn’t end up like this.
Read this if you like: A boot, stamping on a human face, forever.
Other favorites (because I don’t have time to write infinite book blurbs):
Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi
Worlds of Exile and Illusion, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Cyteen, by C.J. Cherryh
Have Space Suit, Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Nova, by Samuel Delany
The Cadwal Chronicles, by Jack Vance
The Caves of Steel + The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Invisible Planets, by Hannu Rajaniemi
Neverness, by David Zindell
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Six Months, Three Days, Five Others, by Charlie Jane Anders
The Peace War + Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge
Makers, by Cory Doctorow
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway