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The Best Science Fiction Series

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The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.

What do I think are the best science fiction series?

For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.

So, in time-honoured reverse order:-

10 Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.

9 Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.

8 Jurisdiction universe, Susan R Matthews
Andrej Kosciusko is a torturer for the Bench, a totalitarian interstellar regime. The first of these books, An Exchange of Hostages, appeared in 1997, but sadly all but the last book seem to be out of print now. Matthews created an interesting universe, peopled it with a well-drawn cast, and wasn’t afraid to tackle thorny moral dilemmas in her stories. I thought them very good; it’s a shame so few other people did. Books in the series: An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience, Hour of Judgment, Angel of Destruction, The Devil and Deep Space, Warring States.

7 The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
I reread this last year, and wasn’t as impressed with it as I’d expected to be. But it belongs on this list because it shows that science fiction can be clever and cleverly-written, without having to pretend not to be genre. The five books of this series are not easy reads – you need your wits about you – and there has probably been more words written about it than the Book of the New Sun itself contains. But this is a work likely to remain a classic for a long time. Books in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch (my review of these four here), The Urth of the New Sun.

6 Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.

5 Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.

4 Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.

3 Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.

2 RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.

1 The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year.  I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).

Now, let’s see you argue about this list…

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32 thoughts on “The Best Science Fiction Series

  1. This list is excellent, Ian. IMHO you should do your best to get it published in some prominent nongenre medium.

  2. No Helliconia? :-(

    • @ian, Ah I didnt read the top of the post-i aint got all day you know…;)
      (for some reason the Reply button was missing from your message in this instance ian

  3. Oh yeah, it’s a trilogy. My goof.

    • @jimsteel, so is KSR’s Mars series a trilogy!

      • It’s four books – there’s The Martians too. As it, er, says in the post. There’s no fourth volume to Helliconia.

      • The MARS TRILOGY is a self-contained trilogy. THE MARTIANS is an oddball collection of short stories, essays, even poems set in the same setting, and a number of stories set in what appears to be parallel universe versions of the trilogy. It is not essential to enjoy the trilogy.

        HELLICONIA is technically a trilogy, but the mid-90s HarperCollins Voyager omnibus edition contains a number of detailed essays and appendices about Helliconia’s flowers, fauna, orbital period and geography which add to the reading experience (in terms of worldbuilding Helliconia is SF’s finest achievement, outshining even Arrakis, and seeing the amount of work Aldiss and his university colleagues put into building it is impressive). No word on if the new omnibus edition of HELLICONIA due this year in the Gollancz SF Masterworks range will feature this information.

        • I suppose the Mars trilogy might be a buit of a cheat, but at least The Martians contains fiction in the same setting, rather than just essays on background info.

          I plan to replace my 1980s paperbacks of Helliconia with the new SF Masterworks edition… although I’m a bit annoyed they’ve decided to revamp the series instead of carrying it on as was. And I don’t like what they’ve done to the cover art, either.

          • Ian, what do you mean by “revamp”? I have the trilogy and am thinking of buying the Gollancz.

            • They’ve changed the design of the books – the covers are now 2 or 3 colour. And I think they’re renumbering from 1 again, although republishing many of the original Masterworks.

              • Thanks Ian. My copies are all in good shape and the covers are unsullied. So I shall wait a while. One problem though, is that I feel quite strongly that the SF Masterworks series should be supported by the SF community/

                My excuses if this appears twice. There might have been a glitch or (more likely) I goofed as usual.

              • I can see why that would annoy a collector. Personally though I never liked the covers that much anyway and certainly don’t care about the numbers.

                I am trying to work my way through the series but aren’t bothered about getting Masterworks editions…

                • I’m bothered. I worry that some classics will go out of print forever. I heard this almost happened to Stapledon’s two classics, until B. Aldiss convinced Penguin to get them back into print. I know no details. I do not know if this is true,

                • I’m glad the series is getting relaunched. I just happen to prefer the old full-colour cover art. And I liked the fact they were numbered – even if they did cock up it once or twice.

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  6. Much as I enjoyed Dumarest, I probably would replace it with James White’s Sector General series. Or maybe bump Cherryh whose books I respect but never enjoyed much.

    • Shows you how personal such a list is – I never rated the Sector General books all that highly. And Cherryh is, I think, not to everyone’s taste.

  7. I tried the first Sector General book and found it to be unreadably childish. I’m not sure if Cherryh is to my taste. I was planning to re-read Downbellow Station and Merchanter’s Luck to find out. I read them too quickly, too long ago. Ditto for Cyteen.

  8. I don’t think that I have ever read a series of books that was so good that I would recommend all of them. Even the series with some of my favorite books like Dune and Dark Tower fail to maintain the quality across every book, especially Dark Tower, which gets so bad that IMHO its absolutely unreadable. That being said, I would have included Octavia Butler’s Seed to Harvest books in there. Also, I know it’s not the best written out there, but personally I love the Known Space books; at least the old ones. Anything written in Known Space since the 90s is not very good.

  9. God-Emperor of Dune is actually my favorite out the series :-D
    obviously we don’t connect on a sci-fi literacy level. The concepts Frank plays around with in it are simply, amazing.

    Next on my list is Heinlin works, but I refuse to buy literature in this god awful socialist country I am in, that charges euro prices for American-made books. What the fudge? No one respects the exchange rate here.

  10. Interesting list Ian. There’s quite a bit on your list I haven’t read (hoping to rectify some of that soon) but of the ones I have read, it’s good to see the “Hainish Cycle” and so highly placed. Also good to see “Book of the New Sun”, although that seems far more like fantasy to me (not that I intend to get into a debate about that).

    Can’t agree with you on the “Culture” series which is hugely over-rated in my opinion. As far as Banks is concerned, I tend to prefer his non-SF titles. Although I thought “Player of Games” was very good.

    Ommissions…well I tend to shie away from series these days but I would be tempted to include Donaldson’s “Gap” series. And “Foundation” of course (but let’s not even go there!)…

  11. About one hour ago (it’s 7 April) a FR friend asked me to recommend some good SF for a younger relative to read. I told her to wait about one minute, went right here, and copied the URL to your entire blog. I told her to scroll down. She did. Within five minutes I received her enthusiastic thanks. So I’ll say, thank you Ian.

  12. Thanks. The old colours are great and my edition of all three is in very good shape. I’ll wait a while before buying the Gollancz. One problem though, is that I feel quite strongly that the SF Masterworks series should be supported by the SF community.

  13. I’m a huge fan of your blog and I read it regularly. Keep up the good work!

  14. I saw a few of them about two weeks ago. The colours of the books repelled me. Too light and uninteresting. Why no eye-catching artwork? Is this representative?

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  17. An Exchange of Hostages might be the best book I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Andrej is a fantastic character. It’s good to see that at least one other person on here has read it and reviewed.

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