Top Ten Fifteen SF Novels

I set out to list my top ten SF novels after fellow blogger Jim did so this morning. I wasn’t able to pare the list down to ten, and anyway, isn’t that a pretty arbitrary number? The first five are classics, and the remaining ten are my own more eccentric choices, highly recommended for many reasons.

Dune by Frank Herbert
This book is a classic. I first read it in a high school literature class; I’ve since read my paperback version to tatters and have acquired a hardback to replace it. It has everything: epic scope, religion, politics, science, compelling characters, plus it’s very quotable. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.” Frank Herbert’s sequels are passable, declining in quality with each successive book, but his son’s prequels are mostly pretty awful.

Ender’s Game
by Orson Scott Card
The tale of precocious and tortured Ender, who goes away to school and ends up winning an interstellar war and wiping out an alien race, is wonderfully told. Ender and his friends are wonderfully well developed characters and the battle school seems real. The author’s parallel story line, returning to view the universe through character Bean’s point of view, is an uneven but fascinating look at the same sequence of events.

Lucifer’s Hammer
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
This older book is a gripping perspective on the end of the world. If it doesn’t have you stockpiling beef jerky, ammunition and insulin, nothing will. It sure makes me wish I had more truly useful skills than I actually do!

Childhood’s End by Arthur Clarke
Others prefer different Clarke books but this is my favorite. It’s simple, elegant, and desperately sad on so many levels. Clarke’s writing can sometimes be a bit cold, focused on ideas and technology, but this one is very human and we feel the characters’ fear and grief.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
I enjoy most of the Heinlein books up to his turning point book, Time Enough for Love. His juveniles are all excellent, and I think read every one of them before I was thirteen. It was tough picking a favorite, but I think Starship Troopers is at the top of my list. It’s a well-disciplined story, with great ideas, a noble, honorable character, a well-defined military universe, and it’s a compelling page-turner too.

by Lois McMaster Bujold
Almost everything Lois writes is fabulous. (Unfortunately, I don’t like the Sharing Knife books.) Memory is at the top of my list, though, because it’s about Miles screwing up past all possibility of a solution, and figuring out a way to keep on keeping on anyway. It’s a book about redemption and persistence, and reinvention, and in many ways it’s the most inspiring of the Vorkosigan books.

Clowns of God by Morris West
This book is only tangentially SF because of its religious/post-apocalyptic subject matter. It’s the story of the Pope being given a revelation of the second coming and the end of the earth, being hounded out of office, and pursued by agents that would like to see him fall and fail. It’s very well written, with beautiful characters and a very liberal theology of love and persistence in the face of evil, and a great piece of literature.

Slant by Greg Bear
Many of Bear’s works are wonderful – Moving Mars, Darwin’s Radio, Eon, but this is my favorite. It’s very stylish, readable cyberpunk, with a vocabulary and slate of ideas that’s as fresh and inventive as Neuromancer seemed when it first came out.

This Alien Shore by CS Friedman
Friedman is better known for her dark Coldfire fantasy series, but my favorite is this SF book. It’s a exploration of the cultural definition of sanity and what that means for our future. The universe may require very different capabilities from us someday. It’s also got an excellent paranoid edge; I love paranoid books.

Heavy Time by CJ Cherryh
Cherryh is probably my favorite single author. I have enjoyed all her series, fantasy, sociological SF and hard SF, but my favorite of her books remain her Merchanter/Alliance universe novels. Heavy Time, and its sequel Hellburner, are wonderfully fast paced, paranoid, stylish novels about life in a far future universe where no one is looking out for us but ourselves.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
What if we no longer needed to sleep? What could we do with that additional eight hours a day? Starting from there, Kress extrapolates a scary near future world where humanity splits into rigid classes based on their intelligence and ability to produce – with the Sleepless at the top of the hierarchy.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall
by Sheri Tepper
Most of Sheri Tepper’s books are fairly strongly feminist, and this is one of the most vehemently so. It’s a fascinating story of a group of middle aged women who have remained friends since college. They are fighting a scarily possible theocracy that wants to relegate women to nothing but childbearing vessels – or less. For all that it’s an angry book, it’s also a great story, interweaving legend, action, and possibility together with great characters.

Accelerando by Charles Stross
This is one of the most wonderfully, joyfully creative books I’ve read in the last 20 years. (The other was Slant, mentioned above.) The ideas, the vocabulary, the universe, and the well-realized vision of a possible singularity are all really well done. I’m not usually a fan of experimental fiction because it can be hard to get into, but this had solid and sympathetic enough characters that it was accessible and a fascinating read.

Vigilant by James Alan Gardner
This author has several standalone books in a “League of Peoples” series, but this is the most profound and far reaching. The heroine joins the Vigil, an elite group that oversees the government of a multi-species planet. After years of training, she survives the implant of a live data link. She saves her world, unravels old mysteries, and gets her own life together. She is a great character, really fun to follow, and the book is excellent.

by Mona Clee
Clee is one of those frustrating authors that only wrote a couple of things and then disappeared. Overshoot is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s the intertwined stories of a young woman learning about her world in the seventies, and the same woman as as an old woman living after the collapse of civilization in a global-warming disaster. This one, too, makes me want to stockpile bottled water and penicillin. If you can find it in print, it’s a very entertaining and all-too-prophetic book.

What was also interesting was looking at books on my shelf that I loved 20 years ago but leave me cold now. I have a huge collection of Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Lee Modesitt books that I haven’t picked up in years. I guess I’ve outgrown them.

10 Responses to “Top Ten Fifteen SF Novels”

  1. mattw Says:

    Oh man, I’ve only read two of those. I should head to the library.

  2. Vince Says:

    I left my three favorites over at Jim’s blog, but I’ll make a few comments here, too. I really like Ender’s Game, but I think Speaker For The Dead is an even stronger book. Never got much into Anne McCaffrey with the exception of the Pegasus in Flight/Tower and Hive series.

  3. Jim Wright Says:

    Hmmm, C.S. Friedman – I wish she was a little more prolific. In Conquest Born is my favorite of her stuff, followed by The Madness Season. The Coldfire trilogy is fairly excellent, and the cover art on all three books is incredible – and what compelled me to buy them in the first place. Especially the cover on Black Sun Rising, man that is one fantastic painting.

    I agree with Vince, loved Ender’s Game, but Speaker was a stronger and better written book. Ender was adapted from a serial Card did for Analog, and it shows just a bit. The last two books in the series sucked beyond words, and in fact sucked so bad that I lost interest in OSC because of it – and I had read him since his first novel Capital.

  4. Jeri Says:

    Matt, as I said, my latter ten are more eccentric, personal choices. If they sound interesting, read ‘em, but they’re not necessarily on anyone’s top must-read list. :)

    Vince, I liked the first Pegasus book okay. As a whole, I’m afraid McCaffrey suffered from quantity over quality syndrome. It’s too bad; she had good ideas.

    Jim, I read the first of Friedman’s new series. It shows promise, but it seems somehow slighter and less dark than her earlier stuff. You’re right about the Black Sun rising cover, it’s probably what got me to buy the book.

    Re: the Ender series, I probably liked Ender and Children of the Mind best. I didn’t care as much for Speaker and Xenocide. Speaker in particular seemed a little too derived from his own missionary experiences. I actually especially enjoyed Children, though, maybe because the character of poor stunted Wang Mu coming into her own and standing up to shadow-Peter was an intriguing journey. I am probably the only person in the known universe that liked the book; it wasn’t very popular.

  5. MWT Says:

    I’m not a big fan of travelogue-based stories, but I can see how Jim might like Black Sun Rising because of all the digressions… ;)

    Ender’s Shadow was a really good matchup with Ender’s Game. It had all the military sci-fi and action and none of the highly abstract philosophy that Children of the Mind did. The rest of the Hegemon series kind of peters out in the same fashion, though – the second book was also quite good (chock full of politics and not a bad matchup to Speaker), but then the third one wasn’t as good as the second, and the fourth was basically just a gigantic plot outline (lots and lots of political intrigue) with cardboard cutouts for characters. (Granted I only got through the first half before I called it quits; maybe it got better after that.)

  6. Jeri Says:

    MWT, the ending of the last Ender’s Shadow book – and I don’t know which number that was, I lost count – was very satisfying and more than a bit surprising. I don’t think the rest of the book was nearly as good as the last 100 pages, it’s like Card wrote the whole book expressly to get to that conclusion. So – if book 4 was the last one – you might want to pick it back up and skim through to the end.

  7. MWT Says:

    Heh, that would be so typical of me. I always give up on something right before the good part. As in, I’m a paragraph away or less. Sometimes only half a sentence. Guess I’ll give it another go (right after I finish my current stack of Pratchett).

  8. slatrat Says:

    Oooh – good list. I’ve read most of them. I did a double take on Clowns of God – until I read your reasoning.

    Foundation Trilogy, 2001, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in A Strange Land. I just read “Starfish” and that was pretty darn great.

  9. Bryan Says:

    I’m not as well read as my wife, so I totally respect her opinions. On a few of the authors she’s listed, though, I prefer other books.

    For Heinlein, I prefer The Moon is a Harsh Mistress , though Starship Trooper is close. Heinlein’s odd liberaterianism does tend to put people off, but he’s a great story-teller.

    For Bujold, I’m partial to A Civil Campaign, but I think some of that is because I like comedy, and Memory is a great book too, representing a huge transition in the main character of that book series. I’ll say this too: if you haven’t read any of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, run, do not walk, to the bookstore of your choice (or log on to one on the internet) and get them.

    Clarke is tough, and while I like Childhood’s End I also have an odd liking for 2010: Odessey Two which I doubt many others would pick from a list as a favorite from him. I like it because it has more of something that his books tend to lack: character development.

    Finally, I’d add an odd recommendation/novel to the list. I used to read a lot of Star Trek tie-in novels. I recognize that a lot of folks hate such books, because they tend to eat space in SF book sections of book stores. Maybe true. A lot of those novels were bubble gum, and I quit buying all but the odd ones here and there many years ago. There’s one, though, that I love and I think even a non-ST fan can love, called The Final Reflection by (the late) John M. Ford. It’s an oddity because other than a pre- and postscript, the traditional ST characters don’t really appear; its about the Klingons (ST bad guys for the uninitiated) and it is a very cool caper cum life history of a character book. Check it out…probably not easy to find other than online.

  10. reviews Says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.