|The following is reprinted from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. The question of which science fiction books are the best ever is a pointless one for most people, since many of the "greatest science fiction novels" are books that no one but science fiction fans will read. A better question to ask might be: What are the best science fiction books that you don't have to be a hard-core science fiction fan to enjoy? We scanned our library and came up with these 10 (well, 12) books that not only provide great SF fun, but also are approachable enough for the casual reader. Some old, some new - but all good reads.
Dune by Frank HerbertDavid Lynch made this book into a 1984 film that was so incomprehensible that the actual novel - 600 pages on the future of religion, politics, desert ecology, and drug trafficking - look positively streamlined in comparison. When the book came out in the mid 1960s its multiple story threads were daunting. (Photo: Robert E. Nylund, via Wikipedia) But (ironically) thanks to shows like The X-Files and even The West Wing, in which several things are happening all at once, people got used to following intersecting story lines. The result is that Herbert's magnum opus now comes across more like an epic historical novel that happens to be set in the future, not the past. Herbert wrote several Dune sequels of varying quality. More recently, Herbert's son Brian teamed up with SF author Kevin J. Anderson to write a trio of prequels that Uncle John doesn't think are on par with the rest. Stick with the original. Links: Dune | More by Frank Herbert
Earth by David BrinScientists in the near future create a tiny black hole and - oops - allow it to sink into the earth's core; in the process of digging it out, they discover there's another black hole down there, and that one's origin is a mystery - and a problem. (Photo: David Brin) This plot line is the skeleton on which author and real-life physicist Brin hangs some fascinating episodic story lines that involve problems the world faces today (global warming, privacy, energy crunches), carried out to their possible outcomes 50 years from now. Originally published in 1991, Earth has already pegged a couple of items correctly (such as a version of the World Wide Web and the idea of futzing with old movies using new computer graphics). Plus, scientists have begun trying to generate tiny little black holes in labs. So imagine what else Brin might (eventually) be right about. Links: Earth | More by David Brin
Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott CardSupersmart child-warriors are used by the military to battle an invasion of buglike aliens. That's the setup of Ender's Game; the meat of the story comes from the struggle of one of these extraordinary children (named Ender) to keep a grip on his humanity even as he's being turned into the perfect killing machine. (Photo: nihonjoe via Wikipedia) Card sets up a lot of questions about morality, war, and man's purpose in Ender's Game; in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, these questions get a payoff as the grown-up Ender finds himself in a position to save a new sentient species or allow it to be destroyed. Proof that interesting philosophical questions can be asked (and even answered) in the form of a purely entertaining story. Links: Ender's Game | More by Orson Scott Card
Grass by Sheri TepperLike Dune, this is a large tale involving nobility, religion, politics, and the fate of the human race - but for a change, the hero is a heroine. (Photo: Charles N. Brown, via Locus Online) Marjorie Westriding is dispatched with her family to a far-off planet to find a cure for a plague, but she ends up confronting questions of original sin among aliens. Lots of philosophy, and even some sex (well, sort of), but also lots of action, plus a group of purely malevolent creatures who love nothing better than to toy with humans. Hand this to someone who enjoys those massive romantic epics for a change of pace. Links: Grass | More by Sheri Tepper
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas AdamsEarth is destroyed to make an intergalactic bypass, launching the interstellar travels of one completely ordinary and befuddled human being named Arthur Dent. (Photo Jill Furmanovsky, via DouglasAdams.com) Geeks love this one, but for the right reasons - namely because it'll make you laugh so hard that you may vomit involuntarily. Note that this is humor of the distinctly British, Monty Python-like variety, so if you're not into that, you may wonder what the fuss is about. But if you ever laughed at Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or even A Fish Called Wanda), you'll be laughing at this one, too. Hitchhiker has several sequels, each progressively less funny than the one before (but still worth a chuckle or two). Links: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | More by Douglas Adams
Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsIt takes guts to snatch the format of The Canterbury Tales and use it to crank out epic science fiction, but the extraordinarily talented Dan Simmons (who also writes bang-up horror and action novels) is just the guy to do it. (Photo: Dan Simmons) Over the course of these two novels, Simmons creates a galaxy-wide human civilization that's pitted against a mysterious enemy. Hyperion uses the overlapping stories of a clutch of pilgrims to paint the picture of this future civilization; Fall of Hyperion describes its downfall, as seen through the eye of a clone of the great Romantic poet John Keats. Great storytelling, great action, great plotting; not just a couple of the best science fiction novels ever, but two of the best adventure novels in a long time, period. Links: Hyperion | The Fall of Hyperion | More by Dan Simmons
The Martian Chronicles by Ray BradburyThis one shows up on a lot of high school reading lists, and for good reason. It's a fine combination of science fiction and fantasy and an increasingly neglected literary form - a series of short stories, hung together with a single thread: they all take place on Mars. (Photo: Alan Light, via Flickr) The stories include encounters with real live Martians (who may or may not be happy to see humans), the stories of the humans who leave Earth to come to Mars, and, in the end, the stories of the humans who are left behind, each short enough to be read in a single sitting. It's Bradbury at the top of his form, which means these are some of the better short stories you'll find almost anywhere. Links: The Martian Chronicles | More by Ray Bradbury
Perdido Street Station by China MiévilleThe perfect book for anyone who thinks that science fiction can't be literary and/or adventurous in form. Miéville's genre-buster of a novel is not unlike what you would get if you spliced together the genes of Charles Dickens and horror master H.P. Lovecraft and raised the resulting creature on the writings of Orwell, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick (the fellow who wrote the story that was the basis of the movie Blade Runner). (Photo: Andrew M Butler, via Flickr) It's difficult to describe the novel, except to say that it involves mad scientists, interspecies romance, vampiric moth creatures, Tammany Hall-like urban politics, the value systems of alien species, interdimensional spiders, and a rip-roaring final action scene that takes place on the rooftops of a city you really can't imagine. All written by someone who uses the English language like Yo-Yo Ma uses a cello. Fabulous writing, regardless of genre. Links: Perdido Street Station | More by China Mieville
Snow Crash by Neal StephensonWilliam Gibson's Neuromancer may be considered the first "cyberpunk" novel, but the fact is, it's kind of a deadly bore. Snow Crash, on the other hand, is a real hoot right from its first scene, which involves a madcap pizza delivery and is written with the same sort of delirious cinematic urgency that you'll find in the best novels of William Goldman (Marathon Man). (Photo: Bob Lee via Flickr) The novel's plot involves a computer virus that (get this) dates back to Sumeria, but it doesn't really hang together, so instead, enjoy the book for its portrayal of both an insanely Balkanized America and a huge cyberworld so vividly imagined that a whole bunch of Internet companies bankrupted themselves in the 1990s trying to create a world just like it. Also, any book that features a large Aleutian with a nuclear bomb in a motorcycle sidecar and the words "Poor Impulse Control" tattooed on his forehead is one you know you're going to have fun with. Links: Snow Crash | More by Neal Stephenson
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert HeinleinThe expiration date for this novel and its ideas regarding love and sex and human transcendence has sort of passed (people used the novel for years as a foundation for their own desire for hippie polygamy, and now they don't so much), but it still make for a good read for two reasons. (Photo: Dd-b, via Wikimedia Commons) One, Robert Heinlein wrote damn fine dialogue, which makes him more fun to read than most other writers today (and how sad is that, since Heinlein's been dead coming up on 15 years now). Two, Heinlein thought seriously about the nature of God and the interrelationship between God and His followers, which is interesting to contemplate even if you're not interested in the polysexual hijinks. Also, Jubal Harshaw, the cranky old man who counsels the "Stranger" is like a dyspeptic Yoda advising an extraordinarily horny Luke Skywalker, is one of the great curmudgeons of the 20th century writing, and you don't want to miss out on a character like that. Links: Stranger in a Strange Land | More by Robert A. Heinlein
|The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!|
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