Friday, June 26, 2009

Essential Sci-Fi

Recently, I was talking to another student who was a big fantasy fan, but had no actual experience reading science fiction. It just so happens that this has happened to me before, and I happen to have a list of essential science fiction lying around (who doesn't?) which, naturally, I was more than willing to share... cause my opinions are more valid than everyone else's. Then I thought, why not share the wonder of my judgment with my adoring throngs of blog readers (do 6 people constitute a throng?). The list is intended to serve as a starter set of novels that provides an orientation to the genre, introduce some of the legendary authors and works, show how varied the genre is, and includes additional related works (including fantasy works by the same author).

Criteria for inclusion:
1.) Novels only (or short story collections from a single author). No individual short stories, novellas, movies, manga, or plays (sorry, Flowers for Algernon).
2.) I need to have read it. Why are there no Neal Stephenson, Larry Niven, Lester Del Ray, or Phillip K. Dick? I haven't gotten to them yet (and won't until after graduation and tenure review... or later). Others may be intentional slights of may fall into this category.
3.) Quality (duh).
4.) Novelty helps.
5.) Winning an award helps.
6.) Character development is a big plus (sorry, Victor Vinge) but being a landmark/seminal will work just as well, usually (hurray, original Foundation trilogy).
7.) Should be science fiction, not humor with sci-fi trappings (sorry, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett)

The List:

Robert Heinlein
Essential: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers
If you like these, also read: The Past Through Tomorrow, Time Enough for Love, Farnham's Freehold, Double Star, The Unpleasant Profession of Johanthon Hoag (a.k.a. 6xH), The Door into Summer, Podkyne of Mars, Tunnel in the Sky, The Star Beast, Job: A Comedy of Justice (fantasy), Glory Road (fantasy)

Issac Asimov
Essential: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation (The Foundation Trilogy - actually a series of 8 novellas organized into 3 volumes), The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, Nightfall (novel version with Robert Silverberg)
If you like these, also read: Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, Nemesis, The Gods Themselves

Arthur C. Clarke

Essential: Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood's End, The Fountains of Paradise, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two
If you like these, also read: Against the Fall of Night, 2061: Odyssey Three, 3001: The Final Odyssey, Rama II (with Gentry Lee), The Garden of Rama (with Gentry Lee), Rama Revealed (with Gentry Lee)

Ray Bradbury
Essential: Farenheit 451
If you like these, also read: The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine

Orson Scott Card
Essential: Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Maps in a Mirror (the collected short fiction of Orson Scott Card)
If you like these, also read: Xenocide, Children of the Mind, The Homecoming Sage (5 sci-fi novels retelling the Book of Mormon, so I'm told), The Tales of the Alvin Maker (7 fantasy novels set in an alternate mid-1800s America, in progress)

Joe Haldeman
Essential: The Forever War
If you like these, also read: The Forever Peace (not a sequal, actually)

Kim Stanley Robinson
Essential: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars
If you like these, also read: The Martians, The Years of Rice and Salt

Frank Herbert
Essential: Dune, Destination Void
If you like these, also read: The Jesus Incident (with Bill Ransom), The Lazerus Effect (with Bill Ransom), The Ascention Factor (with Bill Ransom)

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Essential: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Connie Willis
Essential: To Say nothing of the Dog, The Doomsday Book

Stephen R. Donaldson
Essential: The Real Story, Forbidden Knowledge, A Dark and Hungry God Arises, Chaos and Order, This Day All Gods Die (The Gap Saga)
If you like these, also read: Lord Foul's Bane, The Illearth War, The Power that Preserves (fantasy: The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenent), The Wounded Land, The One Tree, White Gold Wielder (fantasy: The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenent), The Runes of the Earth, Fatal Revenent (fantasy: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenent, in progress), The Mirror of Her Dreams, A Man Rides Through (fantasy: Mordent's Need "Series")

David Brin
Essential: Sundiver, Startide Rising, The Uplift War (Uplift Novels)

Dan Simmons
Essential: Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion
If you like these, also read: Illium, Olympos

Ted Chaing
Essential: The Stories of Your Life and Others

You additions, insults, and quibbling should go in the comments.

Ish has suggested the inclusion of some cyberpunk works. This is not my particular favorite sub-genre, but it is an important component of the overall genre and I wholeheartedly agree that it should be included. His suggestions are below (not all of which are cyberpunk, none of which I have read yet):

William Gibson
Essential: Neuromancer (book 1 of the The Sprawl Trilogy), The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling)
If you like these also read: Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive (books 2 and 3 of the The Sprawl Trilogy)

Neal Stephenson
Essential: Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon (not Cyberpunk)
If you like these also read: Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, not Cyberpunk)

He also suggests Phillip K. Dick, but with no specific suggestions, I won't add him. I could guess based on which ones have been made into movies or won awards, but having had someone actually read them would be far preferable. Now if I can only get some steampunk on the list. Is there any example of steampunk in novel form that is not just the novelization of some other work?


ish said...

The only obvious omission is anything from the cyberpunk sub-genre, but I'm perfectly aware that it is an intentional omission, because of your constitutional hatred for it.

But for those wanting to explore there who don't share your cyberophobia:

William Gibson
Essential: Neuromancer, The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling)
If you like it read: The rest of the The Sprawl Trilogy

Neal Stephenson
Essential: Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon (not Cyberpunk, but still essential even if SW refuses to read it)
Further: Baroque and Quicksilver series (also not CP, more like historical science fiction)

Phillip K. Dick
Essential: Most of it

I'm far from an expert so I'm certain to have left stuff out, but those three are absolutely required.

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

Well, all three of those authors fall into the I-haven't-read-them category. Including some cyberpunk would help to make the list more complete and meet my original objective. I'm not actually qualified to nominate "good" cyberpunk so I will defer to you on your choices and fully endorse them.

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

Phillip K. Dick has about 40 published novels. Want to narrow it down a little? I can add a few to the list, but I refuse to type that many titles out (or copy/paste).

ish said...

That's the reason I just put all of them. I could name a couple that I've read, but don't feel like it is representative of the "best", and I haven't read enough either to be a good judge. Based on awards and notoriety you could say

-The Man in the High Castle (Hugo winner)
-Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the most famous and basis for "Blade Runner")
-A Scanner Darkly (assorted awards and relative notoriety)

But again, that's not from personal experience. Can Lenny help here?

ish said...

The Difference Engine (Gibson and Sterling) is credited as one of the first "Steampunk" works, which is why I included it.

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

"The Difference Engine (Gibson and Sterling) is credited as one of the first "Steampunk" works, which is why I included it."

Ah. Very good.

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

"But again, that's not from personal experience. Can Lenny help here?"

Seems like he could. He hasn't though.

ish said...

Well, it's clear then that he sucks. The Big one.

Reverend0 said...

I was going to do a post to respond. It seemed like a much better place to do a response to this.

First off, I have not read any Philip K. Dick, although Android Sheep is a good one to have on hand.

Second, I don't recommend Niven (at least Ringworld). His other works where he pairs with another author might be good, but his writing is not kind to it's characters in their qualities and depth.

Third, I am going to put a plug in for John Scalzi. I think of him as Heinlein light in some aspects as his characterization and storytelling is excellent. For Scalzi, if you target The Old Man's War and get through the rampant sex you will be in good shape. For another of his books that is fun in a Douglas Adams-light, I would recommend The Android's Dream.

Fourth, for Stephenson, you missed The Diamond Age which is an excellent book. I would say you need to read Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Cryptonomicon...

Neal Asher has been fun lately with the first book in the Ian Cormac series, but the last book in the 5 parter was... not up to the rest.

Also I put another definite agreement with the Weasel on Haldeman's Forever War. Fantastic book.

Some additional ones I can recommend that might be slant cyberpunk (sorry but computer scientists are geared for cyberpunk) is Charles Stross. First I recommend Accelerando which happens to be available for free here. In a tech-fantasy genre he hits a fun set of novels with The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue.

Really I was heading down a path reading only Heinlein and a little cyberpunk, but went to the science fiction museum in Seattle and there found so many of the author's I needed to expand to. Niven and Clarke are the start but there are so many others. I would say if you get past the initial must reads, just hit the wikipedia page for science fiction and there is a great list of authors that are likely worthy of a look for further exploration...

Sorry that I had not been more prolific in my reading, but I am working on it. If I would quit with the business books and historical works...

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

Yay! Reveredn0 comments! Yay!

He didn't have any definitive suggestions for high-quality Dick. For some reason, I thought he might.

You do need more time to read sci-fi so you can help me compile my ridiculous lists.

Cut the business books. Useless. Agile is just a way of describing to corporate types how the academic world works.

Never give up the historical works though... I'm assuming that you mean books about history, not historical fiction...

Reverend0 said...

Not historical fiction. Tried one... found it well written but not interesting. I will stick with the real thing.

Like I said in my post... reading The Difference Engine (maybe I did...). After that, Halting State by Charles Stross. Then I can move on and try a new author or maybe read a couple more Gibson's.

Sorry, but I don't know any definitive Dicks.

Reverend0 said...

Ok, I am about half way through The Difference Engine by Stirling and Gibson. Not science fiction. It is more of a alternate history book.

Just saying.

The Really Sarcastic Weasel said...

Is it alternate history with a focus on science, technology, and/or it's impact on society?

I include the Years of Rice and Salt as sci-fi for just that reason. It's set in an alternate past, not an alternate future, but aspects of Guns, Germs, and Steel loom large throughout.

Also, if it's steam-punk, it automatically counts.

Reverend0 said...

I really don't know how to classify steampunk as I have never read any. I will say there is steam. It does seem to be more about the ramifications of if Charles Babbage actually created his computational engine on a grand scale. It then goes on to the dominance of Britain during this new age of computation and the creation of meritocracy. Science-lite.

Although after reading it, I can say I liked it, but I don't know if you should include it in *must* read sci fi. I guess the ending is most of the twist and justification for it, but it seems pretty light to recommend a book for the last 50 words...