Science Fiction for Undergraduates

For my class, one f the things I asked is what I should tell them about which I did not do.

Somewhat to my surprise, one question, endorsed by a number of other students, was whether I could recommend some good science fiction to read over the holidays.

Why, yes, yes I can...

Ok, we'll jst let rip in random free association...
I'll also mention some more fantasy oriented stuff at the end, just for fun.

I'll presume everyone knows of Wells and Verne, and Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein?

Heinlein: I'd go for the early shorts and mid-career juveniles. The later novels are mostly for hardcore fanboys only. Need editing.

Clarke: Childhood's End and the shorts

Asimov: End of Eternity and the first three Foundation novels, only. (Skip the sequels!)

  • Alastair Reynolds - HARD science fiction
  • Cordwainer Smith - Instrumentality of Mankind
  • Tiptree, especially Screwfly Solution - read this if it is the only science fiction you ever read
  • Brin - especially the Uplift series and Earth
  • Charlie Stross - what would happen if we proved P=NP?
    Or if Cthulhu rose?
  • Vernor Vinge - True Names: this is a short story, it is mandatory reading.
    Also the Fire Upon the Deep, Deepness in the Sky and Children of the Sky.
  • Greg Egan - anything really; but I'd start with Axiomatic. Bleeding edge physics.
  • Iain M Banks - try Use of Weapons, Algebraist, or any of the "Culture" novels. Also does very good "mainstream" fiction, including the definitive "great Scottish novel".
  • Neal Stephenson - early novels, but in particular Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy
  • Ted Chiang - only written a small number of short stories, but has the densest idea flow ever, very tight writing and very very good.
  • MacLeod - Star Fraction
  • Lois McMaster Bujold - the "Miles Vorkosigan" novels and stories. Read them in the order written, early ones are best.
    Also does good fantasy.
  • Lets also throw in Peter Hamilton, another of the great resurgence of UK science fiction.
    "Space Opera" level work, aimed firmly at the teenage boy market, and the hero is always an under appreciated genius from Peterborough.
  • Moorcock - eg War Hound and the Worlds Pain.
  • Fred Hoyle - Black Cloud is classic
  • Bear - mixed bag scientifically, but I'd go for Slant
  • Benford - Timescape - how science is really done!
    Galaxy Center series is also good.
  • Silverberg
  • Varley - espec. Persistence of Vision
  • van Vogt - Slan - for perspective only: "Fan is Slan"!
  • H Beam Piper - Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen - PA State Trooper conquers the world, starting from here... then read Space Viking.
  • Turtledove - hugely prolific, mostly cut'n'paste alt history - the American Empire series is intriguing. The shorts "Road not Taken" and "Herbig-Haro" are awesome!
  • de Camp - Lest Darkness Fall
  • Sterling - Schismatrix
  • Stirling - Island in the Sea of Time + sequels (bit gratuitious)
  • Spinrad - Russian Spring. Spinrad's writing is very "70's", but this is a thoughtprovoking novel.
  • Olaf Stapledon - Odd John, Sirius and Last and First Men
  • Niven - early Tales of Known Space
    Also early Jerry Pournelle and early Ben Bova
  • Haldeman - Forever War (but avoid the "sequels" at all cost!).
    Then read Scalzi's "Old Man's War
  • Gaiman
  • Forward - Dragon's Egg
  • Abbott - Flatland - ok, I'll give on this one. On my shelf, liked it in my youth
  • Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle
  • Clement - Mission of Gravity
  • Anderson - Tau Zero - physics oriented; I think the polesotechnic league and Flandry novels are much better fun
  • EE "Doc" Smith - classic space opera, very dated, but I like the lensmen dammitt.

For beautiful writing and fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay's later books and recent George RR Martin (duh).

I am also very fond of Steve Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen - the only 12 book series actually completed, with more stories from his partner and following other threads.

Anything by Pratchett.
Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksennarrion.
McCaffrey's Dragonrider series - first 7 books only!
Howard's original Conan series.

Enough for now; comment or e-mail for those I miss.

Extra bonus points for anyone who spots the thinly disguised Count Belisarius in any of the above. Then go read Graves and Procopius's Secret History for context, if you haven't already.

More like this

How about...

John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar

Dune series, destination void in fact anything by Frank Herbert. Also liked Stephen Donaldson - Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

I'll second Dune, but nix the sequels. One of the best examples I know of an author totally rewriting an excellent book by having the sequels change everything. As P. Schuler Miller wrote at the time, the Dune is about a world, and the sequels are about a man -- and no man, however great, can compete with a world.

Oddly enough, I found The Screwfly Solution annoying at the time it was originally published and wrote to Bova about it. Tiptree gratuitously violates suspension of disbelief in it, and a wee bit of editorial back pressure could have made it a much better story.

C. S. Fridedman for either SF or fantasy, go there at risk of your sanity because the lady writes some seriously complicated, twisted stuff.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

Nice list; but why no love for the foundation sequels??? And Asimov's robot novels are the ones that got me interested in sf in the first place... They should be on every list.

Don't forget:

Gene Wolfe - in particular his short stories and the "Long Sun" novels.

Larry Niven - Ringworld

Walter Miller - A Canticle for Leibowitz

@g127: I concur on the Lije Baley novels, and would add many of Asimov's short stories (Including I, Robot, which you may be counting as a novel) from the 1940s and 1950s. But I agree with Steinn on the Foundation sequels. In the 1940s and 1950s there was no pressure on authors to make their novels part of a coherent (or semi-coherent) larger universe. By the 1980s the fashion had changed toward series of novels, and Asimov tried a little too hard to make his various novels fit into a coherent universe. As with the Dune sequels mentioned upthread, the later Foundation novels undercut the universe Asimov had created with the original Foundation trilogy.

I would also throw in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (but not his later novels) and the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. (The short story is sufficient.) Should specify the outstanding Bujold fantasy novels, which are Curse of Chalion, and Paladin of Souls; some of the most impressive re-imagining of religion I've seen in fiction.

By Craig Heinke (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

Oh, and both Scott and I highly recommend Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny.

By Craig Heinke (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

Ursula K. Le. Guinn, Left Hand of Darkness, Tombs of Atuan, etc.

C. J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station and the Foreigner series.

David Weber, the Honor Harrington stories.

My first thought was "what, no Brunner?" but obviously I was neither alone in that nor quick enough.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

No one over the age of 14 needs to be reading Asimov or Heinlein. Is this a list for college students, or kids?

How about some Philip K. Dick--Martian Time Slip, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Gene Wolfe, as suggested above--The Book of the New Sun (the first four)

R.A. Lafferty--start with 900 Grandmothers.

Alfred Bester--The Demolished Man, Stars My Destination

Carter Scholz--Radiance. Not sf, about scientists.

John Crowley--Engine Summer; Little, Big.

Stanislaw Lem--The Cyberiad

Thanks for all the leads, this is a great topic with great comments.. :)

I feel compelled to add Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest,Farmer's Riverworld series and I've seen no mention of William Gibson or Samuel R. Delany especially Dhalgren, Einstein Intersection or Babel-17.Also C.J.Cherryh's gene wars novels.

By patrick tolle (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

I think Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy has been mentioned in the comments, and I second that for the first book at least ("Red Mars"), but the 2nd and 3rd haven't read yet. F. Herbert's "Dune" should be on the list as well. I really liked Clarke's 2001, as well as Childhood's End. Surprised no one mentioned "Einstein's Bridge" yet, by J. Cramer. Also, a weird book, but one that I enjoyed a lot is O. Stapledon's "Starmaker". Glad to see Steinn also enjoyed the early R. Howard's Conan stories. Lots of great suggestions in your post and in the comments, I'll have to look up a lot of great books!

By Mean and Anomalous (not verified) on 16 Dec 2011 #permalink

Echoing the Le Guin recommendations.

The Carpet Makers is good. Rather disturbing, and good. Saying much more would likely ruin it.

Also the Otherland series, though Tad Williams isn't for everyone.

A few more:

J.G. Ballard--Crash; The Atrocity Exhibition

William Burroughs--Naked Lunch

Mervyn Peake--Gormenghast

Flann O'Brien--The Third Policeman

Jack Womack--Terraplane

David R. Bunch--Moderan

Thomas Disch--Fun With Your New Head; James Tiptree Jr.--10,000 Light Years From Home; Harlan Ellison--Dangerous Visions; Deathbird Stories; Michael Blumlein--The Brains of Rats--Just to point out that a lot of the best SF is in short stories, not novels.

Sorry that a lot of these are out of print.

Ok, so my ever so humble opinion:

@andy - yes on Brunner

@TPOP - yes on Sturgeon, though 90% of his stuff is crap

@tesh - yes on Dune, no on sequels
Read Covenant Chronicles, because a good friend recommended them, can't stand them

@DC - I read a bunch of CS Friedman when I was a postdoc, can't remember them, kept them though

@g127 - loved the early Robot shorts; especially the one about the two scientists arguing priority - think the grand retcon attempt in the later sequels was a huge mistake

@uqbar - had Niven in there, Known Space, not recent stuff;
never got into Wolfe, is on my to-read list
YES on Canticle for Leibowitz but not the sequel

@Eric - I liked the original Ender's Game short; thought the novel was flawed and despise the sequels
I like KSR but much prefer the 40 Days of Rain to the Mars novels, excellent fictional view of the internals of the NSF

@Craig - yes of Algernon; and stop at short story version.
In fact we need to figure out the best short story anthologies for n00bs to read the classics.
I like the Bujold fantasies, not sure where she is going with the Sharing Knife series, and the recent Miles stories are weak, he is now near omnipotent
BTW - have you read "War Hound and the Worlds Pain"

@PSRboys - yes on Zelazny, though it is still in my to-read pile

@GrayGaffer - I though about le Guin, LoH and Earthsea are excellent - Dispossessed is also good, and of course the short Omelas...
Cherryh is in my to-read pile; Honor H is fluff, I prefer the original Hornblower...

@Moopheus - 19 year olds who haven't read Isaac, Arthur or Robert can use a careful introduction of the old shorts especially, if only to provide the cultural context for much modern stuff - if they have read it, then they start off feeling good about themselves reading the rest of the list
Bester - Yes
PK Dick - I like his shorts, find his novels turgid
Lafferty - ok
Scholz - don't know will check out
Crowley - Little Big is the one novel I have bounced off repeatedly, may read it yet, been carrying it around for 20+ years
Lem - yeah, ok, but I'd put him with Wells, Verne etc - read for cultural context

@pt - don't know Windup Girl will check out
Atwood doesn't want to be considered SkiFi - fine by me, still read her books
Gibson - ok, maybe some early shorts and first novel, recent stuff is commercial dreck
Farmer - I really liked Riverworld as a teen, I don't think it dated well
Delaney is great, but I worry that his work also dated badly, just doesn't seem so daring anymore

@eNeMeE - don't know Carpet Makers will check out
tried Tad couldn't get into him

@Moopheous-2.0 - yes on Ballard, Crystal World left an impression on me, as did his non-SkiFi Empire of the Sun
Burroughs - not SkiFi
Peake - another to-read for me
O'Brien - don't know
Bunch - don't know
Womack - don't know
Disch - yeah ok, I went through a Disch phase, can't remember any one that stuck with me though
Ellison - YES. His good stuff is very very good.

Others I didn't mention:
Mieville, Morgan, Willis (Last of the Winnebagos!), Spider Robinson (only the early stuff, not the retcon later stuff),
Barnes and Barnes (uneven but fun), Holt

Nor Brust or Jordan for fantasy...

Lots of other lightweight Ski-Fi, which is fun but maybe not listworthy...

@Steinn; based on the incredibly high correlation coefficient between your choices and my favorites, I'm updating my Christmas wish list based on those books you recommend which I haven't read. Starting with the Moorcock. Thanks!

Great list! Here's more:
Does anyone still read James Blish? I loved "Cities in Flight" when I was 15.
Lem's "Fiasco" is a great anti-techno-optimist novel.
I don't think anyone has mentioned Le Guin's "The Dispossessed".
An obscure post-apocalypse book I like is "Earth Abides", by George R. Stewart.
If you don't mind true literary quality, "Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood is v. good.
...meta-question: What fraction of astronomers have reveled in Sci-Fi? Guess a percentage!

By Martin E. (not verified) on 18 Dec 2011 #permalink

@Elvis - ooh yes, Cities in Flight is brilliant
Dispossessed was mentioned
Earth Abides is good

99.78% of astronomers reveled in SF and many still do
but only 85.38% will admit it in public, the rest think they are too cool

Do you have any recommendations for Jack Vance...especially where to begin?