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- Top 25 Underrated Science Fiction Books
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- The Alternative Top 25 Best Science Fiction List
- Top 25 Science Fiction Books
- Top 100 Best Science Fiction Books
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- Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century
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SF ERA Best Lists
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SF GENRE Best Lists
- Best Hard Science Fiction Books
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- Top 25 Best Mars Science Fiction Books
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- Top 25 Best Science Fiction Books About the Moon
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- Best Science Fiction Games of All Time
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OTHER Best Lists
The Alternative Top 25 Best Science Fiction List
This is the Alternative Top 25 Best Science Fiction list (AKA the OLD Top 25 Science Fiction List before we created a brand new one and released it in January 2016).
The new, completely updated / revised version is our current Top 25 Best Fantasy Books List, which I suggest you do check out FIRST before drawing recommendations from this Alternative Top 25 list of book picks.
Why Do We Have The Alternative Top 25 List?
The short answer is that I put so much effort into writing the damn thing, with so many detailed recommendations that I couldn't bear to get rid of it.
The long answer is that while the newer (current) Top 25 list is a better, more encompassing. more comprehensive list than this older version of it, there's still a lot of goodness to this Alternative / Older list and ALL the recommendations are still completely valid. For some of you, you may prefer this version to the newer list we created. The Alternative List includes a lot more 'recent' books than the newer version.
Either list offers great recommendations, so use them both!
So, look at the Top 25 Best Science Fiction list, then come back to this Alternative Best List. Between both lists, I guarantee you'll find a selection of the best works to read.
And if you need even MORE recommendations, look at the Top 100 Best Science Fiction Books list, which picks up where the (new) Top 25 leave off, from #26 and concludes at #100.
You can view the crowd-ranked version of this list and vote on the entries at the bottom of this page. This crowd version is the ORIGINAL crowd list that's tied to the Alternative Best List (formerly the old Top 25 Best List).
Books in Dune Chronicles Series (7)
Don't let the bloat of the later Dune novels put you off. You really should read some of Frank Herbert's other novels.
The Dragon in the Sea is another novel of depleted natural resources, in this case oil following a decade-long war between West and East. But the nuclear submarines that the West is using to harvest the scarce oil are simply disappearing. It's not the great world-building epic of Dune, but it is a gripping thriller with a strong message.
The Eyes of Heisenberg is set in a future in which the majority of people on Earth are ruled by the genetically superior Optimen. In the main the rule seems benevolent, despite the fact that the Optimen have dramatically restricted technological development, but a resistance movement is starting to develop. The future world is very vividly drawn, and this is another of the gripping plots that Herbert seemed to produce effortlessly.
Hellstrom's Hive takes what Herbert called "the most horrible kind of civilization you could imagine", and then makes them into the good guys. The horrible civilization is the sort of regimented, highly structured life of social insects; but when a group of humans try to live this way, they are disrupted by the intrusion of government agents.
Dune is a one-off, there is no other novel quite like it. But if you are looking for a novel set in a richly imagined desert landscape with a serious ecological message, you could turn to The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Books in The Ender Quintet Series (3)
Books in Foundation Series (9)
Forty years after the first of the stories that became Foundation was published in Astounding, Asimov returned to the series with a sequel, Foundation's Edge, followed by a further sequel, Foundation and Earth. After this he wrote two prequels to the trilogy, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. To be honest, they're not a patch on the original trilogy, despite the fact that Foundation's Edge won both a Hugo and a Locus Award.
If you LOVE hard science fiction, there's been a lot that stands out since Foundation. For hard science fiction that's highly regarded, check out the Ringworld series by Larry Niven. For space opera science fiction with grand ideas about alien civilizations, read A Fire Upon the Deep.
You might also want to check out the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds. Both of these are not 'hard' science fiction, but some of the ideas are certainly realistic about space travel, alien civilizations, and contact.
Bester's other great novel is The Demolished Man, which won the very first Hugo Award. It asks the question: how do you get away with murder in a society in which telepathy is so common that the police can know everything going on in your mind? Told in a free and easy manner, with lots of wordplay and typographical tricks, it is another novel that clearly deserves to be recognised as a classic.
If you are fascinated by Bester's adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, you should also check out Spirit: or the Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, which also uses the Dumas novel as a model for a story of interstellar adventure. In this case it's also a sequel to her award-winning Aleutian Trilogy.
For another modern space opera with Bester's fingerprints all over it, check out The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate and Cibola Burn. The co-author, Daniel Abraham, acknowledges Bester as a major influence then goes on to list what elements of the story are owed to The Stars My Destination:http://www.danielabraham.com/2012/01/30/paying-tribute-the-stars-my-destination/
Books in Space Odyssey Series (3)
For similar reads, give those three alternative choices a read -- Childhood's End, The City and the Stars, and Rendezvous with Rama.
The idea of first contact and an alien civilization's (or knowledge of such a presence) effect on human society is a common theme in science fiction literature. Here are some outstanding works that deal with first contact.
First Contact by Carl Sagan. This is 'the' first contact novel you should read. Sagan's work has lot a lot of the presteige it had when it came out years ago, yet it still remains a seminal work in the genre about a first contact situation. And of course, there was the Jodie Foster movie.
Blindsight by Peter Watts. A contact novel with a twist. Brilliant and strangely depressing.
For a space opera novel where first contact change the game (and with a lot of emphasis on action, politics, and ship to ship battles), read The Expanse. This series has become a science fiction pop culture phenomenon -- hugely popular with readers looking for compelling action packed old school science fiction and now a hugely successful SyFy TV series which is regarded now as one of the best science fiction tv series ever made so far.
Revelation Space books also deal with aliens and first contact.
Books in Hyperion Cantos Series (3)
Dan Simmons has written an incredible range of books, from mainstream to horror, but if you like The Hyperion Cantos, you really should give his other science fiction duology a read: Illuim and Olympus. They are fantastic books that also borrow literary conceits and reuse them in an extravagant science fiction setting; in this case, Simmons takes on the Odyssey and the Illiad but shifts the events of the Trojan War to a far future Earth and Mars. Hell there's even discussion about Shakespeare by some of the characters. A must read.
For a wild ride into big space opera territory, give Peter Hamilton's works a go. You could start with his Night's Dawn Trilogy which includes The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God -- it's an absolutely massive space opera series with a gripping plot that includes the souls of the dead coming back to possess the living, that keeps you glued to the page from the start to the very end. For a vast space opera with a huge universe, massive cast of characters, a quality story, you should also take a good look at Peter Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga, Misspent Youth, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained.
Hyperion Cantos is a dark series with themes of death, suffering, and tragedy pervading the story. For the ultimate "downer" science fiction space opera, give Stephen R. Donaldson's five-volume Gap Cycle a go. It deals with adult themes and the world presented is not a sugar-coated "the future is bright and human kind is good" kind that most space operas follow.
Books in Childe Cycle Series (24)
Neuromancer was just the start of the Sprawl trilogy, so you should certainly go on to read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, not to mention the stories in Burning Chrome, which tell us yet more about this future of jacked-in cyber jockeys and street samurai, simstim and emerging machine intelligence. You simply can't understand cyberpunk, or anything that happened in science fiction afterwards, without these books. Note that while these books take place in the same 'world' they are unique stories and as such you can read Neuromancer (or the other loosely connected books) as stand alones.
Gibson has recently returned to science fiction with a powerful new novel, The Peripheral, in which people riding shotgun on an immersive game in the run-down near future end up witnessing a murder in the more distant future, and get caught in a time-travelling mystery of escalating violence and ever-increasing mystery. It can be hard going at first, but boy is it worth keeping on with the book.
If Neuromancer got the ball rolling with cyberpunk, there were an awful lot of great writers who quickly joined him. So if this sets you on fire, you absolutely must go on to read Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling, the novel and stories set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe, a future in which humanity is divided between those who go in for genetic modification of the body, the Shapers, and those who prefer mechanical augmentation, the Mechanists. This is the point where cyberpunk started to mutate into stories of post-humanity.
Then there's Pat Cadigan, especially Synners and Fools, both of which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, making her the first person to win the award twice. These are dramatic stories of human/machine interface, and the way it affects our awareness of reality.
For more specific CYBERPUNK book recommendations, make sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre.
Animal Farm is Orwell's other great dystopian novel. Disguised as a rather charming fable about animals taking over the running of their farm, it is really a chilling account of Soviet Russia as the pigs, particularly Napoleon, become all-powerful rulers indistinguishable from the humans they have displaced. And the great rallying cry: all animals are created equal, is subtly changed to read: all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
We by Yevgeny Zamiatin (which appears elsewhere on this list) is the inspiration behind much of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which also appears elsewhere on this list) is the other great dystopian novel of the period.
One by David Karp is set in a near-future America that believes itself to be approaching perfection, though it is in fact a dystopia. An incredibly complex bureaucracy is in place to keep control of all citizens by encouraging a vast network of informers, but when one informer falls foul of the system he finds himself rounded up and subjected to torture.
The Trial by Franz Kafka gave us the word "Kafkaesque" for any nonsensical bureaucracy which gives no reasonable way forward. Although it is a contemporary mainstream novel, the way that the protagonist, Josef K, finds himself arrested for an unspecified crime by agents of an unspecified force, and brought to trial in the attic of a huge tenement building where the procedures remain ever mysterious to him, all adds up to a powerful and haunting dystopia.
Books in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy Series (7)
Douglas Adams died ridiculously young and didn't write anywhere near as many books as we'd like. But he did have ideas for a sixth Hitchhiker book shortly before he died, and that book, And Another Thing Ã?Ã?Â¢Ã?Ã?Â¦, was written by Eoin Colfer. Okay, it's not Adams, but it's a worthy conclusion to the series.
As for Adams's own work, you really don't want to miss Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel, The Long, Dark, Tea-Time of the Soul, which Adams himself described as "a kind of ghost-horror-detective-time-travel-romantic-comedy-epic, mainly concerned with mud, music and quantum mechanics." Even if they're not as good as the Hitchhiker series, they're still head and shoulders above anything else you're likely to come across.
If you want a taste of other science fiction comedies, it's worth taking a look at The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison, about an interstellar criminal who finds himself working for an elite law enforcement agency headed by the galaxy's greatest crook. The first book is pretty good, but there were endless sequels that each get progressively worse.
And don't forget that before he turned to fantasy, Terry Pratchett wrote Strata. It features a flat planet very like the Discworld, but this is actually taking the piss out of Ringworld. And it's by Pratchett, so you know it's going to be funny.
For sure, other Dick reads that deal with similar themes of reality coming undone: Minority Report, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, A Scanner Darkly, and Total Recall.
Books in The Forever War Series (2)
Some years later, Haldeman wrote two other novels linked to The Forever War, though only one is a direct sequel.
The sequel is Forever Free, in which Mandella, with his wife and children, is now a colonist on the icy world of Middle Finger. When they try to use time dilation effects to escape the post-human hive mind known as Man, things go wrong, and they end up returning to a depopulated planet, meet an alien shapeshifter that has coexisted on Earth throughout history, and end up in a face to face meeting with God. It is nowhere near as good as the original, but it is interesting as a sequel.
Much better, but only tangentially connected to the original, is Forever Peace, which also won the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. This is another novel which argues that war is an aberration, but in this case it is a war here on Earth fought by armies of robotic "soldier boys" who are controlled by plugged in operators. However, it is discovered that being plugged in like this cures all warlike impulses, so that the very act of fighting the war ends war.
If you love the military action (and suit to suit combat) of Forever War, read the classic Starship Troopers by Heinlein. While Forever War is an argument against war (and specifically, the Vietnam War), Starship Troopers is the celebration of all things war. Both have a shit load of action. And if you want a novel that straddles the middle between Starship Troopers and Forever War, then give John Steakley's Armor a good read.
For a somewhat different take on future wars, you should also check out Old Man's War by John Scalzi in which it is old people who have already lived productive lives who are recruited to fight and are then given enhanced bodies. But this is still an anti-war novel, the characters are psychologically damaged by their experiences and it is far from clear that the humans are fighting on the right side.
Neuromancer. This is often lauded as THE book that started the cyberpunk genre. It's an oldie but has aged surprisingly well. It's more of a reserved cool, calculated read when you want to really think. Stephenson's Snow Crash is pumped full of energy, a white hot read that keeps you on edge.
Read Stephenson's The Diamond Age, his other great Cyberpunk work. Probably the "closest" you are going to get to Snow Crash.
Altered Carbon, a bit of snow crash, a bit of Neuromancer, and a shipload of action. Awesome on every level.
You might give Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth saga a read. While it is space opera and not cyberpunk, but there's lots of in the words of the Penny Arcade Forum member "locomotiveman" "badasses being badass with the aid of gadgetry, cybernetic and otherwise, while overall being really cool, likable and at times quite funny." An apt description I think. Give it a read if you like reading about heroes who kick ass with the aid of gadgets.
If you like the entertaining dialogue present in Snow Crash, you might want to give Neal Asher's Spatterjay book a read.
Books in Zones Of Thought Series (2)
Vernor Vinge has so far written two more novels set within the Zones of Thought.
A Deepness in the Sky, which won the Hugo, Prometheus and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards, is a prequel set some 20,000 years before the events of A Fire Upon the Deep. Set in the Slow Zone, it is about what happens when an intelligent species is discovered on a planet orbiting an anomalous star, a system that may have entered the Slow Zone from the Transcendent.
The Children of the Sky is a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, but it is set entirely on Tinesworld. The surviving humans on the planet start to fall into warring factions, and while trying to raise the technological status of the Tines they also unleash further wars. A Deepness in the Sky is every bit the equal of A Fire Upon the Deep, but The Children of the Sky feels rather flat and limited by comparison; a decent read, but not a great one. However, there are clearly more Zones of Thought stories to come.
The Outcasts of Heaven Belt, the first novel by VernorVinge's then-wife, Joan D. Vinge, about an escalating conflict between male and female dominated societies in the asteroid belt is also set within the Zones of Thought, or at least so Joan Vinge has claimed.
For an unusual adaptation of the Zones of Thought idea, try Jo Walton's fantasy novel, Lifelode, in which she adapts the Zones of Thought as zones of magical ability.
Books in Old Man's War Series (7)
Old Man's War was the first volume in an ongoing series consisting, to date, of The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe's Tale and The Human Division, with further novels promised. These follow the continuing adventures of John Perry and Jane Sagan, who was created from the DNA of Perry's dead wife. As conflict with varied alien races continues, the pair become increasingly disillusioned with the war, eventually learning that Earth has been kept in ignorance of what is going on, leading eventually to a new alliance with the aliens.
Just as Old Man's War contains echoes of Heinlein, Scalzi has played with ideas from other works of science fiction. Fuzzy Nation, for instance, reboots ideas from the Little Fuzzy stories of H. Beam Piper; while Redshirts, which won the Hugo and Locus Awards, is a comedy built around the idea that it is always the redshirts on Star Trek who die.
Books in Takeshi Kovacs Series (2)
I would suggest the works of Philip K. Dick, since this book won the award named after him. Dick had numerous dystopian societies.
Books in The Book Of The New Sun Series (7)
The Book of the New Sun was only the start of the story, Gene Wolfe went on to write a further volume about Severian and then two further series set in the same universe.
The Urth of the New Sun is set several years after the events recounted in the quartet. Severian is now travelling in a massive spaceship to meet the all-powerful alien who can rejuvenate Urth's dying sun. Along the way he has to encounter all the dead people he has known, and, upon his return to Urth, he finds himself once again facing the enemies he had to battle in the first quartet.
The Book of the Long Sun is another four-book series, Nightside the Long Sun, The Lake of the Long Sun, Call of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun, which follows the adventures of Patera Silk. As the series opens he is a lowly priest in a small neighbourhood 'manteion', but in his efforts to save the manteion he discovers that he is actually aborad a generation starship now nearing its destination.
The Book of the Short Sun concludes what has been known as the 'Solar Cycle' with three novels, On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl. A direct sequel to The Book of the Long Sun, the plot concerns the search for Patera Silk across the two habitable worlds, Blue and Green, that the generation starship Whorl has reached. By the end of the sequence we realise that these events immediately precede
If you love Gene Wolfe's allusive writing and subtle world building, then don't miss The Fifth Head of Cerberus. These three linked novellas concern two planets once colonised by the French, where the population has a rich if rather decadent lifestyle. But there's a mystery concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of the planets who seem to have disappeared, but who are rumoured to have been shapeshifters. Could the humans actually be the natives in disguise?
As The Fifth Head of Cerberus indicates, before he embarked on The Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe was best known for his multiple award-winning stories, many of which are gathered in The Best of Gene Wolfe; look out in particular for "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", "The Death of Doctor Island", "Seven American Nights", and "The Hero as Werwolf".
The dying earth that we encounter in The Book of the New Sun has a long tradition in science fiction. Don't miss the book that gave its name to the subgenre, The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, set in a distant future when the Moon has disappeared, the sun is burning out, and predatory monsters from another age now infest the cold and barren landscapes of Earth.
Books in Culture Series (11)
Books in The Night's Dawn Series (2)
Books in Heechee Saga Series (5)
Books in Spin Series (2)
Julian Comstock is a post-catastrophe story in which America has become rigidly hierarchical, with an hereditary president and fundamentalist Christianity ruling the land. Julian is the nephew of the President who is spirited away as a child to escape assassination. Raised in a rural community, he becomes a war hero and, following a coup, is declared President. In that position he immediately starts to ease censorship, reintroduce the ideas of Darwin, and downgrade the influence of the Church, all of which raises powerful forces against him, which become even more powerful when he comes out as gay. It's a fable about illiberality in Aerica that is one of the best things he has written.
Burning Paradise is yet another very different story. In this instance it is an alternate history in which the discovery of a "radiosphere" has resulted in a less technologically oriented but more peaceful world. But the radiosphere turns out to be a kind of alien hive mind.
It's worth reading this novel alongside Bacigalupi'sbiopunk stories, which are collected in Pump Six and Other Stories, which won a Locus Award for best Collection, and contains such seminal biopunk stories as "The Calorie Man", "The People of Slag and Sand" and "Yellow Card Man" which serves as a prequel to The Windup Girl.
If you're interested in biopunk, you also need to check out Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo, a collection of stories in which he argues thatthe next revolution Ã¢ the only one that really matters Ã¢ will be in the field of biology.
Also worth checking out is Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling, in which one of the consequences of climate change is not just the effect on our food supply, but also the effect on our weather. It's a chilling novel in which, in the very near future, the planet is lashed by storms of unprecedented ferocity.
Books in Blindsight & Sequel Series (1)
Echopraxia is a kind of sequel to Blindsight, though it shifts our attention to characters who played little or no part in the first book. What we get is one of the biologists who unleashed the zombie plague is on a field trip in a remote wilderness when intruders force him to retreat to a strange monastery. Then, when the monastery is attacked, he finds himself aboard a spaceship heading towards a spacestation near the Sun. When we discover that this, too, has been infected with an alien slime mold, we start to question how much of the first novel we can really believe. (Incidentally, Blindsight and Echopraxia have now been published together in one book under the title Firefall.)