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The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

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Everyone loves lists. Contentious lists are even better. So here’s one: the ten absolute best science fiction novels ever published – written by sf authors, published by sf publishers. These ten books show what the genre is capable of when it aims to be more than mindless escapism. They are fiercely intelligent, beautifully written, meaningful, inventive, rigorous, and sf from the first word to the last. They are, in chronological order:

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972). A collection of three novellas – but not a cheat, as the three are linked and form a novel together. This is the sort of science fiction that can be read and enjoyed, and then carefully puzzled through to determine what was really going on. Wolfe is a tricksy writer, and in The Fifth Head of Cerberus he’s at his tricksy-est.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974). Donald Wollheim once claimed that the benevolent dictatorship was the government of choice of sf fans. That’s clearly what comes of reading too many space operas with interstellar empires and the like. And yet sf also has a history of documenting the road to utopia. All that benevolent dictator stuff is nonsense, of course – it’s as much fantasy as the Competent Man as hero. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to it. The Dispossessed is a political book – it’s even subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia” – and it’s political in a way that makes you think, that shows you what sf is really for.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975), is definitely science fiction – it’s in the relaunched SF Masterworks series, for a start – even though it’s proven extremely popular outside the genre. Sometimes it reads like a novel of its time, sometimes it seems almost timeless. But every time you read it, it’s different. It is also the most profoundly literary book in this list, and from an author who is steeped in genre.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). Yes, so Iain M Banks’s Consider Phlebas arguably kicked off the whole New British Space Opera thing in 1987, but to my mind the movement didn’t really gel until the appearance of Take Back Plenty three years later. I remember the buzz the book caused – and I remember on reading it discovering that it was as good as everyone said it was. I reread it a couple of years ago, and it’s still bloody good. So why is it not in the SF Masterworks series, eh?

The Martian trilogy, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992 – 1996), is a bit of a cheat as it’s three books. While many are full of admiration for the first book, Red Mars, but not so keen on the sequels, Green Mars and Blue Mars, I maintain that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You need to read Green Mars and Blue Mars after you’ve finished Red Mars because the first book only poses a small handful of the questions the three books ask and attempt to answer.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993), was once described by John Clute as “Third World sf”, but I prefer to think of it as “post-colonial sf”. But not “post-colonial” in the same way as Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. I was an expat until only a few years ago, so it’s no surprise I’m drawn to fiction which documents the British expat experience abroad – hence my admiration for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. While Park is an American, Coelestis is infused with that same atmosphere. Plus Park is one of the best prose stylists in this list. Why has this book been allowed to go out of print? Someone publish a new edition, please.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000). This is the biggest book on this list – it contains nearly a million words. It is, with Red Mars, one of the most rigorous too. Rigour is important in sf – you can’t just make shit up as you go along (but you can, of course, as Iain Banks is fond of putting it, “blow shit up”). The bulk of the story may be set in an alternate mediaeval Europe, but it is not fantasy. It is clever, it is visceral, it is also physically heavy.

Light, M John Harrison (2002). They say Harrison is a writer’s writer, and the prose in Light certainly suggests as much. Light is also one of those novels that’s often described as one which “redefines” science fiction. Which it does. Sort of. But not by coming up with something new, only by shedding new light on those genre tropes being over-exercised at the turn of the century. They say that sf is a genre in conversation with itself, which makes Harrison one of sf’s sharpest conversationalists.

Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004). I need only repeat David Soyka from his review of this book on sfsite.com: “You can stop reading right now and go out and buy the book. Otherwise, you’ll have to endure yet another one of these diatribes about how science fiction doesn’t get any respect from the literary mainstream. Because you can’t read this book and not reflect on the fact that had this been written by, say, Margaret Atwood, Life would be receiving more of the widespread attention it deserves.”

The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009). I’ve never believed sf should be predictive, but if any sf writer could be called an “architect of futures” then it would be Bruce Sterling. And in The Caryatids he has produced his most inventive and meaningful conversation with the future yet. It is the best book he has written. So why hasn’t it been published in the UK? Why is there only a US edition of this excellent book?

These are not “seminal” sf novels, they are not “classics”, they are not even especially popular. But they are “best” in the true meaning of the word – i.e., “of the highest quality”. If you haven’t read them, you should do so immediately.

Now tell me which books I’ve missed off my list. No mainstream authors slumming it in the genre, please. And I don’t care what impact a book had in, or outside, the genre. It has to be, in your eyes, one of the best-written science fiction novels ever published. And that doesn’t mean the “most entertaining”, or any other excuse used to justify flat writing, cardboard characters, or simplistic plotting. I’m not talking about fit for purpose; I’m talking about excellence in writing, in prose, in literature, in genre.

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36 thoughts on “The Ten Best Science Fiction Books… Ever

  1. I’ll put Ms Jones’ Life in my Amazon Shopping Cart right now. Thanks Ian.

  2. Interesting.

    Strongly agree with the Le Guin & Robinsons – among my own very favourites and most-loved as well as most-respected works.

    I’ve not read /The Caryatids/ or /Ash/, but I very much like Sterling’s work and am quite fond of Gentle’s, so I will not challenge them and will give them a look when possible.

    /Dhalgren/ I read as a teenager, along with all his other stuff, and found utterly forgettable. Most of Delaney’s stuff just rolls off me like water off a duck’s back. Occasional hints of cleverness do not make up for what I found to be fairly dull plots, confounded by confusing and incoherent story-telling, wrapped up in novels that were too self-consciously attempting to be clever for my taste.

    I have only read one Paul Park: /Soldiers of Paradise/. Its praises were sung very highly to me by a fantasty-reading friend. I found it hard work. It plodded. The cover-art and blurb seemed evocative, but the novel was not, with cardboard-cutout settings and forgettable characters. From that book, I find it hard to credit that another is a searing work of towering genius, but, well, OK, maybe.

    /Take Back Plenty/ was – OK. It was good fun, a pleasant little romp. Nothing to massively stir me. An exciting little tale but then so is Peter Hamilton, whose stuff I think you hate. Not even a pale shadow of Banksie at his best. *Definitely* the wrong book of its type.

    Nor have I read /Life/, and I’m not going to, as – as previously, embarrassingly well-documentedly, I *really* do not like Jones’ writing. At all. I really strongly doubt that anything of hers is going to please me.

    But /Light/… now that I /have/ read, and I really bloody hated every last page. It read like, perhaps, a third-rate Breughel or Bosch painting: full of detail and life, but when you look closely, it’s all confused and distorted. What from a distance seems like a fantastic, interesting, vivid scene, up close is shown to be confused and distorted. The detailed working disappoints, lacking the fine detail one might expect; and overall, well, there isn’t a good overall view, because all that there is is a mish-mash assembly of vignettes. There is no clear, bold, overall plan, no big conception, just lots of details thrown together excitedly but haphazardly, and the details themselves disappoint. Overall structure was entirely lacking: there isn’t much opening, just a confusing start, then there’s lots of pointless running around in badly-conceived set-pieces which read like a poor parody of SF. Then it stops.

    I don’t care how many critics loved it, nor how many terribly educated and well-read people thought it was great. I trust my opinions more than anyone’s, and I thought it was a poor, jumbled, confused novel. Plot, characters, settings, world-building were all major let-downs. I noticed no particularly affecting or interesting prose. It’s a piss-poor effort at SF, it’s not space opera at all. It’s not a triumphant return to SF as it was heralded: it’s an empty style-piece by someone who never had anything very interesting to say in the first place.

    These are not, of course, absolute or objective judgements, merely my own opinions – but by putting that lacklustre waste of paper in your list, in my eyes, you cast massive doubt over the rest of the list.

    There are two types of SF novels which come with scads of praise heaped so high upon them nothing underneath shows: one are “classics”, with decades of accumulated puff. Often these are worth it – /Dune/, /Stranger in a Strange Land/, and so on. Sometimes, rarely, I thought they were crap. /Little, Big/ is the most egregious example here.

    The other kind are the new ones, which from before their release are postively moist with the ejaculations of the big-name critics, who are often, of course, the writer’s old friends. Clute’s /Appleseed/ was one. Dreadful, terrible book, complete waste of money. /Light/ is the stickiest I’ve seen though. Everyone loved it, it was so larded with encomium you could have stuck it in the oven and made dripping from it.

    And it was a complete and utter failure, a disappointment, a total let-down. Complete waste of seven quid. Two pints would have given me a hell of a lot more enjoyment.

    Perhaps you should try to do two lists, or two categories: populist stuff and what you consider to be high in literary merit. Two top fives instead of a top 10. Because what I see here is a crude and ill-matched combination of some fun, accessible, readable novels, maybe epic in span but unpretentious and aiming at being an enjoyable read. And on the other hand, several Works, /opera magna/, which constitute Artists exhibiting their Great Technique for their exalted peers. Generally, such people can’t tell a pleasing story for fudge, and while you seem to like such things, you ought to appreciate that many do *not*. By representing them as the best of SF, you do the genre a grave disservice.

    Remember that Rowling and Brown outsell all these people by orders of magnitude. Now, I’m not saying either Potter or Langdon are good writing, but they’re very popular. Most people, most /readers/, want exciting accessible tales, they don’t want great art. If SF were to try to pursue critical acclaim, well, Delaney and Jones and Harrison might serve it well, but it will die as a commercial medium.

    It may be the best writing in some people’s eyes. I don’t think so myself, but OK, so, some people like it, and I puzzle over what they see in it.

    But the best of SF, it isn’t.

    Half your list is. The other half is empty posturing. Now if you enjoy watching a good posture, as some kind of performance art, well fine, good for you – but as novels, as escapist story-books, I think these writers fail badly.

    I know you won’t agree for an instant, but what I wonder is whether between us we can identify what the differences are, what comprises these two schools. It could be an interesting exercise.

    • It’s not a “crude and ill-matched combination”. We’ve established before that we like different authors, that we look for different things in books. The fact that you don’t share my opinion on some of the works in my list doesn’t invalidate my choices (although I do agree about Appleseed).

      Besides, you can’t have it both ways – argue for accessibility and popularity, and then admit that the most popular books are not good writing. Best has nothing to do with popularity – best-selling, perhaps. Celebrating badly-written populist sf novels is what’s doing the genre a disservice. Science fiction, and by extension its readers, should aspire to more.

      If they want cheap tawdry tales with spaceships and robots, then fine; but don’t go round telling everyone else that’s the best the genre has to offer. Because my list shows it is not.

      • I didn’t expect you to agree, but I stand by my points. Any clumsy or repetitious wording I blame on the haste with which I wrote it, in a single go.

        But your list does not show anything particularly, except for your personal tastes. What it possibly betrays, however, is a weakness for what I see as pompous, overwrought, sententious prose.

        There are kinds of literature, fiction even, which centre on this kind of thing. I’ve tried them. I didn’t like them at all.

        To see it in SF, well, that’s fine: it exhibits the richness of the medium. Great.

        But to see artsy, show-off, overly-stylised writing held up as the best of the genre really rankles with me. It seems to me to be the kind of judging of merit that says “this is the sort of SF that is most like the most literary mainstream writing, therefore, it is the best”. I think it’s the weakest.

        But of course, the other interpretation of this is that I’m just betraying my own prejudice toward an easier read. :¬)

        OTOH, I’ve never seen anything but praise given to /Light/ anywhere. I was expecting quite a lot. It is *the* single most disappointing modern SF book I have *ever* read. I honestly do think it is a bad book, without any real redeeming features, and I think in part it got published because MJH’s mates all piled underserved praise upon it.

  3. Firstly, Liam: on sales and popularity, had Take Back Plenty been pushed cheap in Tesco or on Richard & Judy or made into a summer blockbuster I am sure its sales would have been huge and supplied the public with its desire for exciting, accessible tales too.

    Ian, I maintain that the best SF novel ever is Nova but some will argue there are bester!
    I agree though that Robinson’s Mars should be viewed as a single unit.

    • Do you really think it is solely promotion and advertising that made those books such huge sellers? That would seem to be a remarkable simplistic and indeed naïve assessment to me, not to say smacking somewhat of literary elitism. “People /can’t/ have *liked* them, because they’re crap, so it must be the big sales push.”

      I don’t buy it.

  4. Firstly, no-one is going to agree with everything on your list, Ian. It’s a good starting point for an argument, though.
    I too like a bit of literary quality – but not all of the time. Sometimes the easy read is necessary but I would never consume only that.
    For myself I love Le Guin but I couldn’t take to The Dispossessed. The Left Hand Of Darkness, now, there was a novel.
    Light was seen by too many people as Harrison revalidating SF after being away for a while; hence the encomia from within the genre. The criticisms voiced above do have some force.
    Red Mars? Robinson used part of the first book as a vehicle to show off his research. He sent a group of his characters on a journey across Mars for no other reason – it certainly didn’t advance the plot nor develop character. The Mars trilogy was important, though.
    Take Back Plenty I liked and Colin knows the reservation I expressed to him about it.
    Dhalgren went on a bit, Delany’s earlier stuff moved me more.
    Jones I will not read for personal reasons.
    The Wolfe I read too long ago – and too young probably.
    I’ve never taken to Mary Gentle.
    Park and Sterling I’ll probably not get round to.

    • But I wasn’t putting together a list of easy reads. I did vacillate between The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, but eventually plumped for the former on the grounds that it’s a more political novel. And, I have to ask: why won’t you read Jones? I admire her fiction a great deal. I’d also like to hear your reservations on Take Back Plenty. I think Liam’s earlier characterisation of it as a “good fun, a pleasant little romp” does the book a disservice – it’s a sophisticated piece of work.

      • I wasn’t disagreeing with you, Ian, only saying that sometimes an easy read hits the spot.
        A lot of people don’t like being challenged which is why they’ll prefer them and hold them in high regard.
        My reservations about Take Back Plenty were minor.
        As To Jones; did you read her review of A Son Of The Rock in Interzone? If she can so misread a book I doubt whether her own scribblings will be worth the effort. Plus I don’t want to contribute in any way to her wellbeing.
        I told you it was personal.

    • Which issue of Interzone was that in? I’ll have to see if I can find it. I also have a copy of the A Son of the Rock sitting on my TBR pile…

      • A Son Of The Rock was published in 1997 so it was a long time ago. I’m afraid I can’t remember which issuehe review was in.
        But I can bear a grudge….

        (Btw Ken MacLeod once commented to me that he wasn’t sure A Son Of The Rock was SF but it was literature.)

      • It’s in IZ119, May 1997. Cor, she didn’t like it, did she?

  5. The Man in a High Castle (Philip K. Dick) and Neuromancer (William Gibson) are both important and fun to read, which would earn them a place on my best list, should I ever make one. Which I don’t want to do. Books shouldn’t be pitted against each other like cocks in a pit. Or cards in a Pokemon game – that’s a nicer phrase.

    • Oh, I think lists are useful. Especially ones that provoke discussion. Sf may be a genre in conversation with itself, but sf readers seem to like the sound of their own voices a bit too much. I’d give your two suggestions serious consideration – but I’d need to reread them to decide. I’ve a feeling the Gibson won’t make the grade – I read it when it was published and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Looking back from now, I see the fuss, but will the book live up to it?

  6. So when’s the ten worst books going up?

  7. “Cor, she didn’t like it, did she?”

    Yet Foundation described it as “a jewel in the crumbling substrate of popular fiction.”

    • I must admit I’m surprised – she writes literary sf herself, so you’d have thought she’d look on it favourably. Mind you, you weren’t the only that got flamed in that review.

      I guess I’m gonig to have move my copy of A Son of the Rock higher up the TBR pile.

  8. Fantastic list – it’s nice to see someone pull ten books outside of the exceptionally well known books in the genre. I’m thinking through my own library for anything that I’d add, and I’ve got at least one or two:

    The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bachagalupi, which is a stunning book that’s just won the Nebula Award this past weekend. It’s an interesting thriller, set in a post oil world, very forward thinking indeed.
    While it’s one of the more obvious choices, Dune is a solid one that should be on there as well – it’s one of those very prefect SF books that deals with environmentalism, politics, religious furvor and quite a bit more.

    • I’ve not read The Windup Girl, but I’m not too sure what I’d make of it. I’ve seen mixed reports of it, although those who opinions I trust tend to eb positive. Having said that, I’ve not been especially enjoyed Bacigalupi’s short fiction that I’ve read.

      Dune is, well, not actually that well-written a book. It’s a favourite of mine, but it scores highest on world-building, and its prose wasn’t, I felt, strong enough to put it in my top ten.

  9. Very interesting list Ian. The only one I’ve read us “The Dispossessed” and I would agree that this deserves it’s place.

    I liked the sound of “The Caryatids” by Bruce Sterling; I’ve only read a short story by him and it was very good altough I do have “The Artificial Kid” lined up to read.

    I’m not sure how I would compose such a list but I would be inclined to consider such works as “More than Human” by Theodore Sturgeon, “Scanner Darkly” by P. K. Dick, “Death of Grass” by John Christopher, “Bring the Jubilee” by Ward Moore and maybe even the “Helliconia” trilogy by Brian Aldiss. Probably many others too that haven’t yet sprung to mind.

    • The Artificial Kid is Sterling’s second novel. It’s nothing special – it took him a while to get up to speed. A good starting point would be Schismatrix, which is probably the nearest he’s come to heartland sf.

      When the new SF Masterwork edition of the Helliconia trilogy is published, I plan to buy it and read it. It’s been a couple of decades since I last read the three books. The PKD you named is the one I thought the best of his novels I’ve read – and I’ve read a dozen or so. Not read The Death of Grass, and wasn’t that impressed by Bring The Jubilee But I notice that all your choices are in the SF Masterwork series…

      • “Death of Grass” isn’t in the masterworks and “Helliconia” isn’t yet. I have thought for years that it was a great work, long before I knew it was to be included.

        But yeah, I do hold that series in high regard.

    • My copies of the Helliconia books are the original paperback editions from 1983 – 86.

      Yes, the SF Masterwork series is very good. Don’t agree with every book in it, but they do make a valuable library of historical sf.

  10. I would be interested in reading all of the books on this list, Ian. Of those I have read, “The Dispossessed” fully deserves a spot on such a list as this, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” was excellent, and “Dhalgren” was a book I could not yet appreciate as a reader, so I’m unable to comment on the book’s quality or lack thereof. I’ll be looking for the other seven books you mention, so, thanks.

    As for books that I would put on a best-of list like this? I would find a place for “Towing Jehovah”, by James Morrow, and “Star Maker”, by Olaf Stapledon.

    • I’ve not read Star Maker, only Last and First Men, although I have the SF Masterwork edition. There were bits of Last and First Men that were very good, almost like entire novels thrown away in a couple of paragraphs, but I wasn’t convinced the sum of the parts added up to a whole.

      I’ve not read the Morrow either, although I’ve liked what little by him I’ve read.

  11. I agree that Stapledon deserves a place on a fully-developed list. For me it’s often a toss-up between Last and First Men and Star Maker. In my materialist-atheist mode I prefer the first, in my mind-stretching mode the second. These days I choose the first, since the second’s philosophy is Intelligent Design. My Atheism wins out. It is also true.

  12. I reread both Stapledon’s ritualistically every few years, and collect every edition I can get my paws on. But you are right. The stories of the various “men” don’t add up to anything special, except the end of all “human” life (with one escape-clause). This might have been intentional, an attempt to show the proximate and ultimate total meaningless of our puny sentience in a godless universe. That’s my hypothesis. I have a recent academic biography of Stapledon; perhaps the answer is in that book.

  13. PS. C.S. Lewis wrote his Peralandra books as a religious answer to Last and First Men. Parts of the Lewis work read so much like some hymn and/or Credo that I squirm as much as I do when I read the last few chapters of Star Maker.

  14. I would point out that the author, Stapledon, was also an atheist.

    As much as I like “Last and First Men” (and would unhesitantly shove it in any list of personal favourites), from an objective sense, I have to objectively concede that it is rather dated in places the prose is rather lifeless, and the few individuals in the book (I couldn’t call them characters because that implies characterisation) are merely stereotypes of their respective nations. Although I would call it a personal favourite, I can’t quite put it down as a “best SF novel”.

    Star Maker, on the other hand, is hardly dated at all – there’s one or two passing references to the germplasm (used in the same context as DNA), and the brief discussion about the formation of the early universe is not quite correct, but neither are large errors, and the method of the telling of the story, as a myth of the entire life of the universe, negates both of these errors.

    I like “Last and First Men” as much as Star Maker. But Star Maker is the better book.

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  16. I’m glad to see Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula LeGuin, but where are Octavia Butler and Orson Scott Card? But thanks for the other recommendations. You page showed up through a Google search when I was looking for a list of good SF books to read.

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