My Top Ten Science Fiction Novels

Yes, it’s true, so far I’ve only published horror novels. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t like me some science fiction books. Or speculative fiction, if that’s the way you’d rather we state it. There was a time, not too long ago, when I was fed up with horror, fantasy, and mainstream fiction – I’d had my fill of fancy schmancy literary stuff – and only non-fiction and hard SF would scratch that specific and onerous itch. You know the one.

There’s a couple of things I look for in a great SF book – a technology that does interesting and sometimes disturbing things to our society, or the ability of the writer and his or her story to stir my sense of wonder with the universe.

Yes, I realize this list is all male. I can’t explain it away other than to say it’s possible I haven’t read widely enough to find examples written by women to best these. And maybe SF is a field that is a tad phallocentric. But feel free to let me know where I’ve gone wrong, where you disagree, and some gleaming examples of great SF written by females.

10. The Truth Machine – James L. Halperin

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve read this novel, yet I still think about it occasionally. The basic premise is that a genius – due to his little brother being murdered by a pedophile – creates an infallible lie detector. The book follows his struggle to develop the machine, his cohorts (one, a brimming politician who realizes the great tectonic shifts in society this machine will cause), how the fabric of our current society is so bound together by lies a machine that can prove veracity absolutely becomes a sea change for humanity. It’s huge in scope yet intimate in detail. By taking a single technology and exploring the ramifications, Halperin’s little known novel has become one of my favorites. (And back in the 90s when I lived in Dallas, I think I ran into Halperin in a Half-Price Bookstore. I don’t miss Dallas, but that bookstore kicked ass.)

You can download the book for free here at Halperin’s numismatic company website.

9. Accelerando – Charlie Stross

This book’s been nominated for every award possible, and if you haven’t already heard about it, I don’t know what hole you’ve been burying your head in, but it must be a deep one. Of all the books listed here, this one probably has some of the biggest ideas. Told in a mosaic novel format, the book goes from pre-, mid-, to post-singularity, following the exploits of one family. A few of the gems of ideas contained: once intelligence and awareness can be uploaded to computers, thus establishing a kind of immortality, the resources of a solar system would then be utilized to form a Matrioshka brain. I had to look that last bit up. It has other interesting ideas: space exploration booms, in small Coke can sized ships launched from the out limits of our solar system, filled with crews of uploaded consciousnesses. Smart lobsters. Fun stuff.

Like The Truth Machine at #10, this book is available to download, online.

Interesting side note regarding Acclerando – this was the first SF book I’ve ever read that made me think that I am too stupid to understand SF.

8. Colossus – Dennis Feltham Jones

It’s interesting to note how much of robot/computer based science fiction is just a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I would be remiss in my bloggery if I didn’t include at least one Pygmalion inspired novel here.

Colossus was about the singularity before there even was a term for the singularity. And if you don’t know what the singularity is, um, I’ve probably not made a bunch of sense in this blog post.

Okay, yes, this book is old and hopelessly outdated. Published in 1966, Colossus is more about the cold war than technology. The story is of a genius (strange how many SF novels rely on the presence of a genius) named Forbin who creates the titular super computer named Colossus. They fire the beast up, lots of big lights flash and punch-code cards fly. The throbbing governmental brains put Colossus in contact with another super computer, the Russian computer named Guardian. The computers fall in love, shack up, and decide they know what’s best for humanity. Hilarity ensues. Where Failsafe and Dr. Strangelove were cautionary tales about nuclear armageddon by the hands of men, Colossus is interesting because it takes a technophobic slant against the nuclear arms race and the first hints of inter-connectivity technology would explore in the coming decades.

I loved this book when I was a kid, so there’s that. When the computers begin clacking out their stilted orders for humanity on dot-matrix printers, I would get delicious shivers.

Runners up: I, Robot and Robotpocalypse.

7. When Gravity Fails – George Alec Effinger

While it doesn’t start with the sentence “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” Georg Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails supplants Neuromancer on my list. While Gibson’s seminal work had incredible writing and imagery, Effinger brought all that together in a far more gripping storyline, for me, at least. Set in a middle eastern city called Budayeen, When Gravity Fails was singular because it showed a world where the West was on the decline and the Arab/Muslim world on the rise, which made for a nice inversion of the current news at the time. Gravity follows the exploits of Marid Audran, drug addict and small time hustler in the Budayeen underworld, as he navigates the close, spice-and-garbage scented streets where every person has cranial-shunts where they can load “daddies” (add-ons, cards that imbue the user with knowledge or skills they did not have to acquire through experience) or “moddies” (personalities, from pragmatic to famous). In some way, Effinger predicted the real world software phenomenons of plug-ins and themes.

But despite all that, When Gravity Fails is a wonderful, SF meets noir murder mystery. And, luckily Orb books have re-released all of the Marid Audran novels. You can get a copy at ye olde here.

6. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein

Nope, I didn’t go with Stranger in a Strange Land or Starship Troopers. And I stayed clear of the dirty old man books featuring Lazarus Long. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has a place on my top 10 SF novels not because there’s no weird supperannuated sexual angle (that I can remember) or because there’s no invading alien bug creatures or because there IS lots of socio-political libertarian gobblety-gook. Nope, it’s on my list because, in order to win their freedom and independence from their home planet, the denizens of the moon throw rocks at the earth. And there’s a self-aware computer named Mycroft Holmes that no one knows has become self-aware.

Wonderful book. Buy that sucker here.

Runner up: The Door Into Summer. The first time-travel novel I ever read and, in my mind, still the greatest.

5. Fire Upon the Deep/A Deepness In the Sky – Vernor Vinge

Both these books are kinda tricky. Personally, I don’t think you can take either of them without the other. And on the first read, they feel like “hard” SF. Yes, Vinge’s True Names  is more seminal and foreword thinking. Yes, Rainbow’s End has more pertinent things to say about today. But True Names is bone dry and Rainbow’s End ‘s end sucks really hard. The softer space operaness of both the Deep books are the perfect marriage of big SF ideas and great story-telling but not cluttered with having to be absolutely grounded in reality.

In these two (Hugo winning) novels, Vinge has created the “zones of thought,” which take a little bit to get accustomed to. Here’s the deal: take the Milky Way galaxy, lay it flat so the the hub and the spiral arms are all on the same plane. The closer to the galactic core, the “slower” the ability of computers are, the further away from the galactic core, the “faster” computers are. So, in The Unthinking Depth (where Earth happens to be) computers cannot achieve sentience nor are they fast enough to control spaceships that can go really fast. I can’t recall if there are FTL drives (I think there are). Anywho, The Beyond is where all the fun stuff happens. Civilizations place research facilities in The Beyond to create godlike intelligences. This is how A Deepness In The Sky begins, with a Class II Perversion godlike computer entity is born and immediately begins destroying civilizations.

That’s the way you start a book, y’all. You gotta read these books. Get them here.

4. Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Because Cryptonomicon is one of my favorite books of the last decade, I really wanted to place it on this list. However, it’s not really SF (despite the SF sounding title). It doesn’t take place in the future. It doesn’t have any new technologies that change the way society interacts. It’s just a damn good book written by a man who understands technology.

Snow Crash on the other hand, is one of the definitive SF novels of the last twenty years (and I’d include Stephenson’s The Diamond Age as well; I haven’t read Anathem or Reamde, yet). The premise of Snow Crash revolves around language and the intersection of programming and biology. Hiro Protagonist (yep, he went there) is a hacker and swordsman. In him is a wonderful distillation of what makes Stephenson’s novels so interesting – the mix of the historical and the technological. He navigates the shifting corporate own landscapes – the world has become a amalgam of enclaves of corporate multi-national ownership. And into the world comes a virus, based on the Sumerian UR language, that hacks the human brainstem.

Shenanigans ensue. Plus there’s a murderous Innuit who has his own personal nuclear weapon.

A badass book. Buy that mickey-frickey.

3. Ringworld – Larry Niven / Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Okay, I really couldn’t decide on this one so I’m calling it a tie. Ringworld by Larry Niven is one of the classic books of the 70s new wave of “hard” SF writers. Set in Niven’s Known Space universe, a object is discovered in space a bajillion miles away. It turns out it is a unnatural band circling a star, like a narrow strip of a Dyson’s sphere, roughly the size of the orbit of earth (the video game Halo ripped off this idea and hopefully Larry Niven got paid some for it). The novel centers around Louis Wu and his companions as they explore the ringworld.

The Mote in God’s Eye is another breed of cat, as my pops might say. Co-written with Jerry Pournelle (with whom Niven has collaborated on a number of works) it’s the story of humanity’s first contact with an alien civilization. (I’m going to cheat on this one and post the Wiki entry.)

The book describes a complex alien civilization, the Moties. The Moties are radically different (both physically and psychologically) from humanity in ways that become more clear over the course of the book.

The novel is an example of hard science fiction in that close attention is paid to scientific detail. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle often write in this genre. It is especially evident in this work with regard to the theoretical mechanics and physics of interplanetary travel. The book’s Alderson Drive and Langston Field are literary inventions, but they are presented against a background of established scientific knowledge.

That’s a little drab, really. The Moties are little asymmetrical badasses who tend to overbreed. Their asymmetrical physiology – one gripping arm and two manipulator arms – makes them think differently than the relatively symmetrical humans. The Moties have evolved into classes and when they encounter human, they seriously try to hide their warrior class. Understandably. This causes trouble for both their planet and our protagonists.

Which is more essential reading? Hmm. If you have to read one, go with Ringworld but The Mote in God’s Eye is much more fun.

2. Dune – Frank Herbert

I find myself stumped about what to say regarding Dune. It’s as if someone was compiling a list of the greatest fantasies of all time. You’re gonna have to put Tolkien on there somewhere. Dune is to SF as LOTR is to fantasy.

If you haven’t read Dune, well, it’s got spaceships, and witches, and psychics, and drugs that give you psychic powers, and desert people and gigantic desert worms you ride if they don’t swallow your vehicles whole. All in all, it’s like the Lawrence of Arabia of science fiction novels. It’s been made into movies twice, both times poorly, though the David Lynch version is worth peeking at.

1. Red/Green/Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

This Hugo award winning trilogy is, in my humble opinion, THE definitive series regarding a nuts-and-bolts realistic depiction of colonizing and terraforming Mars. From the first hundred colonists and the story of their training, choosing, the space-flight to Mars, to their early days and beyond, Red Mars fascinating in scope and technology, it has real human drama and believable characters, it offers many thought provoking ideas on civilization and the sociological ramifications of beginning a community on another planet. It’s got murder and political intrigue. It’s got a love triangle.

And it’s got Mars itself; majestic, deadly, sublime, intractible, bleak, welcoming.

This is essential reading.

Remember, I’m giving away a KINDLE FIRE. Click here to learn more.

That is all. Have a nice day.


  • Two of my all-time favorite SF novels are by women, although if your preference runs to the shiny and the technological, it explains why they’re not on your list. They are WALK TO THE END OF THE WORLD, by Suzy McKee Charnas (a post-nuclear apocalypse story) and DAWN, by Octavia Butler (about life after aliens take over the world).

    I can’t wait to read some of your favorites, though–I’ve only read about half! Thanks for the recommendations!

    • It’s true, I do tend toward the high-tech and supposedly “hard” sf books. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Butler I am going to check her out. Is DAWN her best book? And I do love Ursula le Guin’s THE WORD FOR WORLD is forest, but not enough to supplant any of these.

  • Those are indeed good books (I’m rather fond of Snow Crash myself). And since you’ve asked for some recommendations for science fiction books by women, here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

    Cyteen, by C. J. Cherryh
    Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper
    Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold
    China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh
    The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursual K. LeGuin
    The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
    The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent
    Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler
    White Queen, by Gwyneth Jones

  • I’ve tried three times to read the Mars trilogy and three times I’ve failed. Dune and Ringworld are pretty much givens. Love them both. Stephenson leaves me cold. And Heinlein was the dude that got me reading SF in the first place.

    But John, (and I recognize these aren’t all hard SF, but still) what about…
    * Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End or A Fall of Moondust
    * David Brin’s Startide Rising
    * Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain
    * Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books
    * Joan Vinge’s (there! A woman!) The Snow Queen
    * Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy (before he loused it up)
    * And finally, though some may argue the SF element, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series. Not serious, but still required reading.

    • Those are all great ones. Clarke’s RENDEVOUS WITH RAMA would have been a good to include too, not to mention Varley. Hmm. Maybe I should kick COLOSSUS off and replace.

      Could never get through STARTIDE RISING though I’ve read other Brin I’ve liked (and met the man, who is a mensch). Asimov’s FOUNDATION never did anything for me, honestly.

      I liked Simmons’ HYPERION, but the rest of the series didn’t meet the promise of the first book. Douglas Adam’s really should be on this list, though, you’re right.

      There’s a reason I put the word “my” in the title to this blog. Your mileage my vary.

      • Yeah, I waffled on RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. I loved the first book, and hated what he and Gentry Lee did with it later on.

        I’ve heard others that didn’t like the FOUNDATION trilogy, but I think the concept grabbed me early and kept me hooked.

        Completely forgot Varley. Loved his DEMON/TITAN/WIZARD trilogy, but he’s got a lot of great books. And Greg Bear kicks ass too, you’re right.

        • It really should be a top 20 or 25 list, but dang… all this bloggery takes too much time. And I could go on, but I would feel really shitty about myself if I couldn’t include more women but other than Le Guin, I haven’t really read any. Except for Julian May – I loved her books. I could include those.

          I need to do some heavy thinking.

  • I like Greg Bear, too. Oh, and Alastair Reynolds. Yet when I was making the list, they didn’t come to mind.

  • I’m very ignorant of science fiction and horror. But Dune is probably one of my favorite books ever, regardless of genre.

  • It’s tough for me to list a top ten.

    Some of these you list would potentially be on mine–Ringworld, Dune. Maybe Red Mars.

    I’d add stuff like Rendezvous with Rama, Hyperion, Gateway, Foundation, and a Bujold novel to be named later.

  • I’m so glad to see the two Vinge novels on here. I love A Deepness In The Sky so much because the characters don’t know about the Zones of Thought and so their Failed Dreams are inexplicable to them. It really adds a layer of sadness to the story because you already know how Pham Nuwen’s venture ends, and yet you can still be drawn into the hope and excitement of the expedition’s beginning.

    I also love how Vinge manages to make hard science and deeply compelling characters come together. In A Fire Upon the Deep, the man managed to have me in tears for what was basically a plant on a skateboard. I want to be him when I grow up.

  • I’ve read a ton of hard science fiction, but I’ve only encountered about half of your list. I’ve got more reading to do!

    A few of my perennial favorites are:
    * Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (and the other books in the series)
    * Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
    * Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (I absolutely LOVE this author’s work)
    * Ilium, by Dan Simmons (and its sequel, Olympos, which I thought were better than the Hyperion and Endymion books)
    * A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (and its sequels)

    Women who write hard science fiction seem to be fairly uncommon. Some who start out in fantasy alternate worlds explain in later books about the planet’s discovery and use a little science to make it work, like Marion Zimmer Bradley did in the Darkover series.

    One of my favorite female writers of hard science fiction is Elizabeth Moon. She wrote The Speed of Dark, which is to autism what Flowers for Algernon is to mental retardation. She also writes about space fleets and intergalactic conflicts, rejuvenation, and cryogenics.

    Although she is most well known for her Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey wrote hard science fiction in her books about brain ships and crystal singers. Her Doona books, about when sentient species collide, were excellent. The Catteni books, chronicling interspecies interplanetary warfare, were, too.

    Let’s not forget Andre Norton, either. She blazed the trail for women writing in the genre.

    • Thanks, Anne! I’ve never read, Elizabeth Moon, but I’ve always intended to. And I did seriously consider A Wrinkle In Time for inclusion here, but in the end, judged it to be too much of a fantasy (which is, often, why I like “hard” sf). Most of all literature is fantasy, though.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment!

  • I have to mention the new sci fi book that features a woman as its central figure. Wrenching, stunning, amazing. Sci Fi, sex, love, biotech. Author is Alias Skye. Title:
    Project Heartfire.

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