50 Essential Science Fiction Novels for a Public Library

I am making a list of the 50 science fiction novels that every public library, large and small, should have on the shelf.

There are many “best” and “most important” lists out there, and some of them are very good, but none are exactly what I’m looking for. I’m well aware that no consensus will ever be achieved here, but having done a ton of research over the years, I’m pretty satisfied with the preliminary list that I’ve created. I thought I’d throw the question out to you guys as well to see what you come up with as well. I’ll share my own list and more details downthread some. Nitpicking expected. :stuck_out_tongue:

The list is to be of novels that are fundamental to the genre, so please try to look beyond what you are personally enthusiastic about and consider what is important to the genre as a whole. Assume that shelf space and cost are not at issue.

Note that this list of 50 is a subset of a larger list of science fiction books that a given library ought to have, so exclusion from this list does not mean that the book will not be a recommended acquisition. The parameters of the larger list are not as strict.
Parameters:

  • The list will not be ranked 1 - 50. The only question is whether it is on or off this particular list.

  • The list is for science fiction only. Fantasy should not be included. Science fiction with some fantasy elements will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

  • Simple popularity as measured by sales or circulation numbers is not enough to get a book on this list.

  • Maximum of 3 books by an author.

  • Sequels and series - Only the first book in the sequence will be listed. I can add a note on crucial sequels if needed. (I’ve made one exception to this in my own list.)

  • Short stories - Multi-author and “best of” anthologies are not to be included. Regular single-author short story collections may be.

  • Young Adult - YA science fiction may be included if it is genuinely important to the genre as a whole.

  • Links to other lists and previous threads are welcome, but please give us your personal input.
    To save us some time and effort and to get us started, here are a few books that are on the list that I don’t think too many people would argue with.
    Adams, Douglas - Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
    Bradbury, Ray - Fahrenheit 451
    Card, Orson Scott - Ender’s Game
    Herbert, Frank - Dune
    Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
    Le Guin, Ursula K. - Left Hand of Darkness
    Orwell, George - Nineteen Eighty-Four
    Pohl, Frederik - Gateway
    Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
    Simmons, Dan - Hyperion
    Wells, H.G. - War of the Worlds

So whatcha’ got?

William Gibson, Neuromancer
Vernor Vinge, A Light Upon the Deep
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
AE Van Vogt, Voyage of the Space Beagle
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End
C. J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station
Iain Banks, Use of Weapons

that should do for starters

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
Robert Heinlein Double Star
Samuel R. Delany Dhalgren or The Einstein Intersection
Edgar Pangbourn, Davy
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
Jasper fforde, Shades of Grey
Andreas Eschbach, The Carpet Makers

The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K Dick

doesn’t science fiction need to be set in space, have aliens visiting earth or involve time travel. i would say that is the bare minimum for science fiction.

OK, I read the Amazon preview of Fforde’s book and I had no interest in it based on the preview, so I’m gonna challenge that one. I would say it is not even a good book, much less an essential.

I’m sorry, but that’s incorrect.

Perhaps this is a larger conversation for another thread but I’ve never thought of 1984 as science fiction. It’s merely set in the future. And it turns out that Asimov agrees with me!: http://www.newworker.org/ncptrory/1984.htm

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age
Larry Niven, Ringworld

Public librarian checking in.

If you want to save a slot in your 50, Frankenstein (actually, ALL of those) would already be in the catalog as a classic (required in the collection for schoolwork) so it doesn’t have to be in the SF list.

I’d say the others (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451) were too far into speculative fiction to be on a specifically SF list, but that tends to be a very personal judgement call.
Asimov needs to have Foundation, and something with the Robots. Actually, for the Robots, a good short story collection would be the best representation of the 3 Laws universe. I nominate The Complete Robot for the spot.

Anyone noted Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars yet?

Also, I think Snow Crash was pretty influential.

Something from Bank’s Culture ought to be on the list, but I don’t know the series well enough to say which. Likewise Brin’s Uplift series is notable, but I don’t know which of them would be best to list. Personally I’d choose Brightness Reef, but I’m a sucker for dolphins.

Are we limited to novels? I and many other fans believe that the short story is a much more apt medium for the genre, and you can fit a whole collection of short stories into the same shelf space as a single novel. Any volume of The Hugo Winners would be a good choice; they’re all regarded as good, and give the reader exposure to a wide variety of authors, whom they can pursue more of on their own.

And Margaret Atwood doesn’t think she’s written any science fiction! :stuck_out_tongue: Thanks for the link to the article.

For the purposes of this thread, let’s say that we’ll just follow the generally accepted definition of what constitutes science fiction.

Suggestions so far:

William Gibson, Neuromancer - It’s on the list
Vernor Vinge, A Light Upon the Deep - Do you mean A Fire Upon the Deep? I’m considering it, but it may get bumped down.
Isaac Asimov, Foundation - On the list, with a note that the whole trilogy should be included.
AE Van Vogt, Voyage of the Space Beagle - Not sure this is really top-50
Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End - This would be my choice for one of Clarke’s 3 spots.
C. J. Cherryh, Downbelow Station - Currently grouped in second tier.
Iain Banks, Use of Weapons - I have no Banks on the list right now. Why this one, especially since it looks like the 3rd in a series?

Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination - On the list
Robert Heinlein Double Star - With only 3 slots for Heinlein, there are others I’d call more essential.
Samuel R. Delany Dhalgren or The Einstein Intersection - I’m not quite sure what to do about Delany!
Edgar Pangbourn, Davy - Essential to the post-apoc subgenre, but I’m not sure it makes the top 50 as a whole.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids - Same as above, sadly.
Jasper fforde, Shades of Grey - Haven’t heard of it before now. I’m going to read it for sure, but I can’t see that it’s essential.
Andreas Eschbach, The Carpet Makers - Another that doesn’t seem essential.

The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K Dick - Other Dick works will probably fill the top spots.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age - Ah yes, the Stephenson problem! He needs to be on the list, but I’m not sure which to choose. I’m leaning towards Snow Crash and possibly one other.
Larry Niven, Ringworld - On the list.

I would demand a science fiction library featuring an ABC of the overlords of the genre: Asimov, Bester, Clarke!

Arthur Clarke – Rendezvous With Rama and Fountains of Paradise.
Isaac Asimov – the whole Foundation trilogy, also I, Robot
Joe Haldeman – The Forever War
Tolkien - Lord of the Rings (the whole trilogy)
Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers
Philip Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Anthiny Burgess – A Clockwork Orange
Walter Miller – A Canticle for Liebowitz
HG Wells – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds
Jules Verne – 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea
Danial Keyes – Flowers for Algernon
Larry Niven – Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer

What about Ray Bradbury?

See the parameters in the OP regarding short stories. The purpose of the project is not exactly what you’re assuming it is.

The list is of essential science fiction, so it belongs on the list. The fact that it is also a literary classic does not change that. It’s fine that it would already be in the collection.

Do you mean that you don’t consider them science fiction?

Does the Complete Robot include everything in I, Robot? If so, I will replace I, Robot with the Complete Robot on the list.

It’s in the second category right now.

Things get kind of complicated when we talk about notable series instead of notable books, you know?

Arthur Clarke – Rendezvous With Rama and Fountains of Paradise. - Rama is firmly on the list. I have Childhood’s End, 2001, and Fountains of Paradise battling it out for the other two slots.
Isaac Asimov – the whole Foundation trilogy, also I, Robot - Both on the list
Joe Haldeman – The Forever War - On the list.
Tolkien - Lord of the Rings (the whole trilogy) - Not science fiction.
Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers - Starship Troopers is on. I have 2 others before SiaSL, so it’s currently second-tier, due to the 3 per author restriction.
Philip Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - On the list.
Anthiny Burgess – A Clockwork Orange - On the list.
Walter Miller – A Canticle for Liebowitz - On the list
HG Wells – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds - Both on the list
Jules Verne – 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea - On the list
Danial Keyes – Flowers for Algernon - Currrently in the next tier
Larry Niven – Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer
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  • Both on the list.

I’m aware of his work.

Yep, A Fire Upon The Deep. Its concept of an interstellar internet functioning as an audience for all that happens was brilliant, I thought.

I’d be OK with the whole trilogy but not any of those that came after.

Van Vogt was an original thinker who knew how to tell a story. Don’t let that disgruntled fanboy Damon Knight fool you.

Well, first of all, the Culture novels are not a series, they’re all written as stand-alones. You don’t have to know jack-squat about any of the other novels to enjoy one of them. I chose Use of Weapons because it’s a very good representation of how the Culture deals with non-Culture societies, and it had some VERY powerful character development. Any of his other strong Culture novels would make the list. “Consider Phlebas” about the Idiran war or Excession about an encounter with an artifact whose technology is well in advance of the Culture’s, would also work just fine.

I’ve TRIED to read Delaney, but I find him hopelessly dull.

I agree. IMHO the best science fiction focuses on a single aspect of future or scientific novelty and it’s ramifications. I’m sure there are plenty of people who do enjoy the novels and broadly constructed worlds created also, but the short stories starting in the pulp era and onward were highly influential.

I would include the Weapons Shops of Isher in the list, either the novel or the short stories it was based on. Also Dragon’s Egg, which to me is the best hard science fiction novel ever written.