Want to know where Star Wars or Star Trek came from? Have you watched an awesome science-fiction movie and want to have similar experiences? What if you wanted to know more about the history and key concepts of science fiction?

Below are my recommendations for attaining a rudimentary understanding of science fiction. Almost all of these books are genuinely fun to read, well-written, provocative, and visionary. By the time you are done with each one of them, you should have a new question, a new thought, maybe even a new way of perceiving your world.

(Caveat: this is a living list that will change as I read and develop my understanding and teaching of science fiction (SF). This is not an attempt to create an SF canon, although I do think canons are legitimate because of the inescapability of two universal facts: our time is limited, and we are social and tribal creatures who imitate each other.)

Several Basic, Essential Texts for Science Fiction Readers

These books are either quite influential, for SF writers and readers, or else they have been discussed at length in criticism, or both.  By listing these books here, I am not saying that they are necessarily the best SF books, or even good ones.  Just that it would be hard to know that much about SF without reading them.

  • Pre-1900s – Thomas More’s UtopiaRobinson CrusoeGulliver’s TravelsFrankenstein; Jules Verne
  • HG Wells –The Time MachineThe War of the WorldsThe Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man;
  • Olaf Stapledon – Last and First MenStar Maker
  • Karel Capek — R.U.R.
  • Isaac Asimov – I, Robot [if you read this, read Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker, which attacks Asimov’s ideas]
  • George Orwell – 1984
  • Robert Heinlein – Starship TroopersStranger in a Strange Land (see other suggested Heinlein books below)
  • Harlan Ellison – Dangerous Visions (a short story anthology)
  • William Gibson – Neuromancer

Author and Book Recommendations

These recommendations are based solely on my own preferences, although I do not necessarily agree with everything in every book below.  For more recommendations, start with David Pringle’s list of 100 greatest SF novels and the worldswithoutend.com website for longer lists of SF recommendations.

I have starred books (***) that I think are the best to begin with, if you haven’t read much SF before.

Gene Wolfe

  • Book of the New Sun
  • Book of the Long Sun
  • Book of the Short Sun
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus
  • Short Stories (***)

Philip K. Dick

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Ubik
  • Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • The Simulacra
  • VALIS
  • Short Stories (***)

Robert Heinlein

  • Time for the Stars (***)
  • The Door into Summer
  • Double Star
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (***)

Ursula LeGuin

  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • The Word for World is Forest (***)
  • The Dispossessed

M. John Harrison

  • The Pastel City (***)
  • The Centauri Device
  • A Storm of Wings
  • In Viriconium

JG Ballard

  • Short Stories
  • The Crystal World
  • Crash
  • The Empire of the Sun (***)

Stanislaw Lem

  • Solaris (***)
  • His Master’s Voice
  • Fiasco
  • The Cyberiad (***)

20th Century Books

  • Strugatskys – Roadside Picnic; The Doomed City
  • C.S. Lewis — Perelandra
  • Larry Niven – Ringworld (***)
  • Brian Aldiss – Non-Stop (***)
  • Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker
  • Pierre Boulle – Planet of the Apes (***)
  • Christopher Priest – The Prestige
  • Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (***)
  • John Brunner – The Sheep Look Up
  • Philip Jose Farmer – To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  • Alfred Bester – The Stars My Destination
  • Joe Haldeman – The Forever War (***)
  • Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End (***)
  • Walter Miller – A Canticle for Leibowitz
  • Jack Vance — The Dying Earth; Cugel’s Saga (***)
  • Greg Bear — Blood Music
  • Dan Simmons — Hyperion
  • Walter Tevis – Mockingbird (***); The Man Who Fell to Earth
  • Ian Watson – The Embedding

21st Century Stories and Books

  • Peter Watts – Blindsight
  • Cixin Liu – The Three-Body Problem
  • James Cambias — A Darkling Sea
  • John C. Wright — Count to a Trillion
  • Charles Stross — Accelerando
  • Daryl Gregory — “First Person, Present Tense”

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