My sci-fi novel recommendations
A repost with some updates, just in time for the holidays.
For some reason, a bunch of people have recently been asking me for science fiction recommendations. So I thought I’d repost my list of sci-fi favorites, along with a few additions from my list of underrated sci-fi and fantasy. I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive guide to the genre, or that these are the best books ever written, but they’re my personal favorites. I hope you find something fun on the list! Happy holidays to everyone.
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 basically the story of a liberal family on a conservative planet (loosely based on Russia), trying to reform their society from within. But it also features quite a lot of exciting space adventure, since when the protagonists aren’t trying to advance the cause of gentle 90s-style liberalism, they’re gallivanting around the galaxy foiling the evil plots of star empires and mercenaries and gangsters and terrorists.
What sets the Vorkosigan saga apart is not just the unique characters (Tyrion Lannister is almost certainly loosely based on Miles Vorkosigan), the fleshed-out world, and the extremely well-paced plotting. This is perhaps the most idealistic, optimistic science fiction I’ve ever read — basically this series is to books what Star Trek: The Next Generation is to TV shows. Most speculative universes are places I enjoy reading about; Bujold’s is one I would actually want to live in.
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, but this book made an especially powerful impression on me.
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
Quite simply, All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most beautiful novels ever written. It defies genre classification — it’s a picaresque, surrealistic sci-fi/fantasy book that’s really just about human relationships and love and friendship and pain.
It’s the story of a mad scientist and a witch who become friends growing up in a small conservative 1980s American town. In the second half of the book (spoiler!!), after a falling-out, the protagonists both end up in 2000s San Francisco — the mad scientist in a sci-fi version of the startup world, the witch in a fantasy version of SF’s literary underground scene. (Among other things, All the Birds depicts the soul and culture and feeling of San Francisco better than any other book I’ve read.) Eventually the world must be saved, but ultimately the human relationships that the characters form are the most important thing.
If I had to pick one book to be the “great American novel”, at least as far as the last half century is concerned, this might be it.
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
In the early 2000s, there was a small boom in “posthuman” space opera fiction where the characters can upload their personalities. Titles like Revelation Space and Singularity Sky got a fair amount of attention, but my favorite entry in the genre is nearly unknown. Tony Daniel wrote a pair of books called Metaplanetary and Superluminal that were supposed to be part of a longer series, but, well, no one read them so he quit.
But those books were truly excellent. Daniel’s depiction of distributed uploaded personalities and virtual worlds is one of the most intuitively believable I’ve read. I especially like the concept of a “pellicle” — a distributed cloud of devices that contains small subcomponents of your personality that you only occasionally use. And the books contain a human warmth that’s largely missing from the genre, as well as a wry sense of humor (1990s Usenet geeks have uploaded themselves into cloud-like spaceships so they can continue their esoteric forum debates, and at one point our heroes are condemned to a forgotten digital prison known as Microsoft Windows). I wish this series had continued, but just these two books are worth reading in and of themselves.
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 Alliance-Union Universe, by C.J. Cherryh
Two of the books in this series — Downbelow Station and Cyteen — won Hugo awards., but there are a ton of other solid novels in the series. The Alliance-Union books are a space opera saga that sprawls across space and time, featuring interstellar wars, weird planets with alien races, and all the usual space-opera goodness. The characters are different from book to book, so it’s really more of a universe than a series.
What really sets Cherryh’s writing apart is the plotting. I want to call it “cramped”, but that sounds like a bad word; instead, these books are cramped in a fun way. They’re usually about people forced to live and work in extremely close and stressful situations, usually with people they don’t get along with. The tension this creates is what makes the books fun.
Read this if you like: Antiheroes, plot twists, aliens
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 Neverness Cycle, by David Zindell
This is some seriously far-out sci-fi, right up there in weirdness with Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny. It’s posthuman space opera before posthuman space opera became a popular thing. But it’s just far weirder than other tales in that genre. Just look at the summary from Amazon:
Mallory Ringess becomes a pilot of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame. His quest to find the Elder Eddas – nothing less than the secret of life embroidered in humanity’s oldest DNA – will lead him from Neverness’s streets of colored ice into the deadly manifold: the “space beneath space” whose topology writhes and twists with hideous complexity like a nest of psychedelic snakes.
I promise that this summary utterly fails to convey the weirdness of these books, but you can get a taste of it — the main city is one where people ice-skate everywhere, space pilots fly by proving theorems in their head, and so on. There are lots of weird things that get mentioned but never explained, such as an order of people called “autists” who try to intentionally cultivate autism, and whom I assume are like the people who used to hang out on the LessWrong forums. But the books also do have an emotional core — they’re really about father-son relationships.
Read this if you like: Far-out stuff, space opera, daddy issues, the 1970s
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.
Bonus: A few fantasy picks
The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander
Until recently, I had thought that every kid in America grew up reading The Chronicles of Prydain, just like Narnia and Lord of the Rings. Apparently I was wrong; in recent weeks, I’ve discovered that almost no one I know has read Prydain. Well, it’s time to rectify that.
The Prydain books are children’s fantasy, full of the usual wizards and monsters and fairies, but the themes are surprisingly mature; the series is all about coming of age, what it really means to be a hero, etc. As the protagonist, Taran, grows from a boy to a man, the series transitions from fun and improbable adventures to difficult choices and bittersweet endings. In my opinion, the writing of these books is better than Narnia, but the life lessons and social values are what really set them apart.
David Roberts wrote a good review of the series on Vox back in 2017. I don’t know if I’d call Prydain the “greatest fantasy series ever written” — Lord of the Rings is hard to beat. But it’s up there, and for some reason it’s been almost forgotten.
Also, the character Gurgi is the best sidekick ever created.
Read this if you like: Heroism, adventure, life lessons
The Cycle of Fire, by Janny Wurts
The 80s were really the best decade for fantasy, in my opinion; you can find so many hidden gems just by going back and reading 80s stuff. And one of the very best is Janny Wurts’ Cycle of Fire series. The basic plot is that humanity is constantly under siege by a whole lot of demons and their various henchmen, and our only real defense is the powers of a very small number of extremely powerful wizards. Since one of those wizards has recently died, humanity is in trouble, and the next generation of super-wizards must be discovered and trained.
The Cycle of Fire is great because it has everything a fantasy series ought to have — a beautifully fleshed-out world, protagonists you can really sympathize with, a creative magic system, breathless fast-paced action, looming evil that’s about to destroy the world, dastardly antagonists, and so on. And sailing. Lots and lots of sailing. It also has a fun sci-fi tie-in (no spoilers!), and it also manages to pull off that most elusive of feats — a highly satisfying ending.
Read this if you like: Wizards, constant tension, sailing
The Dark Border series, by Paul Edwin Zimmer
These books are probably the most obscure items on the list — I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone else who has even read these (other than my mom, who recommended them). They came out in the early 1980s (the best fantasy decade!), and basically sank into instant and complete obscurity. They’re so obscure that Amazon doesn’t even list the titles correctly.
But they’re amazing books! The setting is a Tolkienesque world that’s locked in a sort of fantasy Cold War, where the human world is guarded by powerful beings called Hasturs (a name cribbed from the works of the far more popular Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was the author’s sister) and various magical warriors. The forces of evil — basically, Cthulhu-style extradimensional monsters — maintain their half of the world in a truly hellish state where everyone is always trying to enslave and/or eat everyone else. Essentially the books document a series of skirmishes in this never-ending Cold War.
There are four books in the series — The Lost Prince and King Chondos’ Ride, which are two halves of one main story, a fun side story called Ingulf the Mad, and a sequel called A Gathering of Heroes that’s far inferior to the other books and frankly can be safely skipped.
Read this if you like: Swordfights, monsters, dwarves
Tales of the Ketty Jay, by Chris Wooding
If you like the TV shows Firefly, Cowboy Bebop, or Outlaw Star, you’re going to love the Ketty Jay series. It’s basically the same setup — a mismatched crew of down-on-their luck quasi-pirates with shady backstories, flying around doing quasi-legal things as they slowly become friends and realize they also have to save the world. Only instead of a spaceship, this story is on an airship — it’s British steampunk fantasy. Given the popularity of Firefly etc., I’m not sure why Wooding’s series never got that famous, because the quality is just as good.
The Ketty Jay series starts strong and gets better — the second book is the best, the third is a little too heavy on the action sequences, and the fourth one is an emotionally satisfying and appropriately wild ending. Fortunately all the books are now available as audiobooks, so you can listen to someone read them in an appropriately British accent.
Read this if you like: Steampunk, airships, lovable crews of rogues
The Mirror of Her Dreams + A Man Rides Through, by Stephen R. Donaldson
This two-book series is actually called “Mordant’s Need”, but I think that’s a silly name. The books themselves, however, are far from silly, and in fact are excellent! Donaldson is much better known for his other books, especially the Thomas Covenant series. But Mordant’s Need (sigh) is actually his best series by far, in my opinion.
This is “portal fantasy” — a woman from our world gets pulled into a fantasy world. Portal fantasy is still very common in anime, but has mostly been forgotten in American fantasy literature. That’s too bad! And The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through are right at the top of that subgenre. In fact, the fantasy world in these books is based on portals — the only form of magic is “imaging”, the ability to make mirrors that function as gateways between worlds. The protagonist, a woman named Terisa, gets pulled from our world and finds herself in the middle of a runup to a war.
The characters in this series are endearing, the action is fun, and the magic is very cool and original. But what I really like most about this series is the plot, which is based on the frustration of living a government that simply won’t wake up and recognize the titanic threats bearing down on it. Reminds me a bit of my own country.
Read this if you like: Romance, the 1980s
The Lyonesse trilogy, by Jack Vance
Jack Vance is probably best known for his voluminous sci-fi novels and his Dying Earth series, which helped to inspire Dungeons and Dragons. And all those books are excellent. But in fact my favorite Vance books are the forgotten fantasy novels of the Lyonesse trilogy — Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc. (Annoyingly, this series also doesn’t have its own Amazon page — here’s Goodreads.)
This series takes place in a Europe-inspired lost continent. The plot is very fairy-tale — an evil king locking a princess in a garden, a child reared by fairies, and so on. But it’s written in Vance’s trademark laconic, terse, insouciant style, which makes it more like a picaresque adult fantasy. And it’s peppered with weird 1980s stuff — alternate dimensions filled with bizarre energy beings, and so on. As with many Vance tales, it’s an unambiguous morality play — the good guys are simple honest folk who just want to live their lives, the bad guys are scheming sociopaths who eventually get the perfect comeuppance. My favorite character is the young, impetuous, overconfident wizard Shimrod. Anyway, the Lyonesse series is yet another lost gem of the 1980s.
Read this if you like: Tongue-in-cheek humor, justice, adventure
A few other favorites (because I don’t have time to write infinite book blurbs):
Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny: Space travelers turning themselves into gods on an alien world
The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi: A posthuman picaresque romp through a very weird solar system
Worlds of Exile and Illusion, by Ursula K. LeGuin: Short stories that are deeper than you realize at first
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge: A prophetic novel from the mid-2000s that sketches out a future for augmented reality, AI, online education, anti-aging, and more
Neuromancer, by William Gibson: The classic cyberpunk novel, but really a meditation on depression, drug addiction, and regret
Have Space Suit, Will Travel, by Robert Heinlein: Starts off as very “hard” sci-fi about space suits, and ends up with fun aliens
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein: A libertarian revolution on the moon
Nova, by Samuel Delany: Yet another great Delany space opera
The Cadwal Chronicles, by Jack Vance: An overlooked gem in the Vance oeuvre, featuring all of the essential Vance elements
The Caves of Steel + The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov: The first books in the famous Robot Series
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson: A sci-fi novel about…art appreciation?
Invisible Planets, by Hannu Rajaniemi: Beautifully touching and romantic short stories
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick: The most mind-bending of PKD’s novels
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams: The all-time classic of sci-fi humor
Even Greater Mistakes, by Charlie Jane Anders: Probably the most beautiful short story collection I have ever read (includes some realist fiction)
The Peace War + Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge: A strangely depressing but also enjoyably weird meditation on the alienation caused by high technology
Makers, by Cory Doctorow: A tale of a tech startup boom and bust (with a prescient warning about long-term drug side effects)
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway: Delightful post-apocalyptic weirdness with the best plot twist I’ve ever read
The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey: A wonderful near-future space opera with lots of attention to the realistic details of space travel (and also a wonderful TV series)
Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir: A more cosmic, far-out “puzzle sci-fi” story in the style of The Martian, with most of the same strengths
The Death Gate Cycle, by Maragaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: A criminally underrated fantasy series with lots of world-hopping and several types of wizard
The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper: Another classic children’s fantasy series that not enough people seem to have read
Schild’s Ladder, by Greg Egan: A thoughtful meditation on the intersection of science and love
Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany: I know I have a lot of Delany on this list, but Dhalgren is just too epically weird to leave out.
The Lies of Locke Lamora: A great urban fantasy set in a sort of Renaissance Venice, featuring two wisecracking con men buddies.
The Riyria series: A long-running fantasy series that is far more laid-back and chilled-out than your typical epic fantasy fare.
Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Stories of the Witch Knight and the Puppet Sorcerer, by Garth Nix: A very entertaining picaresque series of stories about some guys who go around killing gods.