50 Essential Science Fiction Novels for a Public Library

Young Miles, by Lois McMaster Bujold. (Contains The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Mountains of Mourning, and The Vor Game.)

As for Iain M Bainks I would go for Excession or Consider Phlebas. I thnk they are both better than Use Of Weapons but its highly subjective.

Further explanation:

One of the librarians at my local public library suggested that the science fiction book buyer might be interested in speaking to me about how to improve their collection. (I was grousing about it, and I guess I sounded more constructive than crank-ish.)

Given that I’ve spent the last 10 years or so trying to identify and read the “core canon” of science fiction and of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I find myself in a good position to be useful in that regard. I’ve read a LOT of lists and and commentary over the years, including many threads from this board, and I have I let those guide me in creating my own reading program. Some lists out there are just some random guy’s personal favorites, but there are many others that represent attempts more objectivity or widespread consensus. I also found it helpful to see what books won important awards. There is a lot of variation between lists, but many books pop up over and over. Those are the ones I wanted to read.

The local library proved to be a poor source of books as their SF collection is sorely lacking. They do have a pretty good selection of notable books released in the last 15 years or so, and they’re covered on works that are general literary classics, but I just wasn’t finding most of the books on this or that list. Also, a public library in an affluent town of 30K really ought to have Starship Troopers on the shelf. And The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Caves of Steel, Childhood’s End…okay, I’d read all those before I started this, but you get the idea. The situation gets worse as you move away from the best-known authors and books. They do have some good stuff, but the selection is extremely spotty. (And to be clear, I’m not criticizing the librarian who chooses the new acquisitions!) The inter-library loan system helps a little, but it seems to be designed specifically to discourage you from using it and other local libraries collections seem to be not much better.

Ultimately, I’d like to see the library have most or all of the more freqently-recommended science ficiton books, including at least a few of the most important works in various subgenres.This list of 50 is the beginning of my attempt to improve the situation. 50 won’t cover it, but it’s a start.

As for why I’m keeping this initial list to 50 - By keeping the “absolute essentials” list to 50 and including literary classics, I’m minimizing the number of books that I’m suggesting they get as soon as possible. They do have the vast majority of items on my preliminary list. I don’t want to walk in there and say “your collection sucks,” you know? I’d rather start off with a more positive spin, establish some cred, and emphasize that I’m trying to be constructive more than critical. If they seem interested in further improving the collection, then we can move to the next tier on the list.

I stipulated in the OP that neither shelf space nor budget was an issue for this list of 50. Perhaps that was an over-simplification, but I didn’t want those concerns to affect the discussion. They certainly have enough shelf space to add the few books that they would have to get to fulfill the list, but I don’t know how much more they have for further expansion. It looks like they have lots of empty space, but I don’t know how these things work in practice. Budget need not be an issue if they will accept donations and would support me working to fundraise for further expansion of the sci fi collection. Naturally I’d only be donating or working to get what they would actually put on the shelf.

I hope you can see why I also stipulated that short-story anthologies are not to be included in the list of 50. They should definitely be in the collection, but don’t fit with this list.
My preliminary list coming later tonight.

For Banks, do either Use of Weapons or The Player of Games. Heck, do both.

Which Heinlein’s do you have ahead of Stranger? Besides The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?

For Clarke: my vote’s for Rama, 2001, and Childhood’s End. See that some of his great short stories, like (The Sentinel, The Star, the Nine Billion Names of God) make it into one of the collections that Chronos mentioned.

For Niven and some Jerry Pournelle, I’d pick Ringworld, Lucifer’s Hammer and The Mote in God’s Eye. I like Dream Park and The Magic Goes Away setting too, but can’t pick them above those three.

Be sure to have your short story collection contain Inconstant Moon and The Jigsaw Man. Maybe Death By Ecstasy too?

I love Alastair Reynolds—the Revelation Space setting is one I’d absolutely love to see hit the big screen—and Charles Stross, but I’m not sure that any of their novels crack the top 50 all time SF stories.

Any love for Harry Harrison’s Deathworld? Or, A Stainless Steel Rat is Born? How about Nolan and Johnson’s Logan’s Run? I’ve no problem with calling Fahrenheit 451 sci-fi. Not Bradbury’s fault that technology caught up to the things he was predicting: immersive interactive 3-D entertainment, drones tracking people by scent, dialysis as a means of poison treatment. I’d throw Kurt Vonnegut in, but only for his short stories.

Good luck working with your library. A few months back I reviewed the material available at the Wisconsin Digital library and found a disturbingly high proportion of them (20%) were Star Wars spin offs. I posted about it.

Can I make a few comments as a purchasing librarian? I purchase sf and fantasy for my system, and have for several years now.

One issue that libraries face that regular buyers don’t is the question of whether a book is still in print and available to the library.

Consumers now are very blessed. If you want a book, you can pretty much guarantee that you can find it somewhere. Amazon, abebooks, hell, look overseas and ship it in from India, or get it printed-on-demand from Lulu.

Most libraries cannot do this. Because they are spending government money, there are a shit-ton of restrictions governing how - and pertinent to this issue - WHERE they can spend. Most of us have to spend funds in specific places, which are usually big book “jobbers” like Brodart or Baker & Taylor, and once those places are out of copies in their warehouses, the libraries are shit outta luck.

Now, that’s not a total death knell. There are usually paperbacks available - but some library policies prevent purchasing above a certain total collection percentage of paperbacks (because they wear out so much faster than hardbacks), or require that paperbacks be pre-bound, which is costly - our pre-bindery service runs about as much as each actual book costs us. (So, yes, every paperback I buy I’m essentially paying for it twice. With a limited budget and a multi-location system, that makes me think real hard before I pick those titles, which I hate, but I have to spread the money as far as I can.)

If you’re starting a library from scratch and know you need to scrounge for your core collection, you can sometimes get a waiver into your policies to allow one-time purchasing through a place like Amazon, but until recently, the idea that a genre collection like fantasy or sf could even HAVE a “core collection” was laughable to most (non-nerdy) librarians.

So, what you’re doing is great, and it’s good that you are interested and want to help, but if it takes a while before your suggestions make it onto the shelf, they aren’t stonewalling you - they’re just damn hard to get.

I may or may not have purchased specific books myself as a private citizen for the express purpose of donating them to the library so we could catalog them. Even there, because I’m a librarian, I can force the issue from inside my own system, but some places have really archaic and restrictive rules on what can be accepted as a donation (for example, our official rules are nothing ‘used’, nothing more than 5 years old, only hardcovers with pristine slipjackets) and those rules don’t really take the concept of a historically-accurate ‘core collection’ into account.

Frankly, it’s frustrating as hell.

And don’t even talk to me about digital collections. It’s like a fucking wasteland out there, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon. So many good genre title don’t have digital editions available for libraries (don’t assume that because you can get an e-book, that the publisher has made one available to the library - more times than I can count they have not, and I want to scream.)

I try to look at how audiobooks have taken off and have hope, but it’s just so damn awful that it’s hard to have any optimism.

Well, no.

A few that haven’t received mention yet (assuming I searched well):

Jules Verne - Journey to the Center of the Earth
Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Barsoom Series (A Princess of Mars, etc.)
Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles
Michael Crichton - The Andromeda Strain

I’d replace Stranger in a Strange Land with The Menace From Earth, to go along with The Moon/Mistress. I’d second Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Gotta have a collection of Sturgeon short stories, I’m a complete sucker for Sturgeon, I’d nominate Case and the Dreamer but YMMV.

Charles Sheffield - Brother to Dragons
Hal Clement - Mission of Gravity

It seems almost heretical to me to not include something by E. E. Smith. But his best known novels are all integral parts of series, I am at a loss to suggest a single title.

Two important classics:

Walter M. Miller - A Canticle for Liebowitz
Daniel Keys - Flowers for Algernon

Don’t judge it by the preview. The novel is not only very funny, but it’s one of the most detailed and clever bits of world building in the genre. Everything in it sounds totally bizarre at first, but it turns out to all be based on some very logical social extrapolations, all of which deal with the issues of class stratification in society. It’s one of the best SF books of the last ten years and one of the worst things about a similarly titled best seller is that it put the sequel on hold.

If you stll don’t want it, replace it with Kit Reed’s sensational Enclave or Thinner Than Thou.

As far as I know, libraries buy certain crap because it’s crap that circulates. I’m not sure if your statistical snapshot fits in with the overall trend, but maybe Lasciel could give some insight.

Any look at the “14-day” science fiction books (aka new acquisitions) at my library does reveal that a number of them are either Star Wars or similar spin-offs and lame series extensions like the eleventeenth sequel to Dune. I’m assuming that these are purchased because they circulate. Fortunately, there’s always good stuff to balance it out, whether it be a new book by a great author, or some oddball thing I’d never heard of that looks really interesting.

The list is only 50. Gots no room to do both!

Starship Troopers and The Past Through Tomorrow.

I just added The Mote in God’s Eye to the list. The other two are on.

Thanks for all your other great suggestions. The Stainless Steel Rat is definitely included in the second group, hopefully in a volume that contains a few novels. Strangely, they have 4 Stainless Steel Rat sequels, but not the original. I’m thinking a lot of the spottiness in the collection is because books that were originally there were lost/damaged and not replaced.

SiaSL wasn’t included. The Menace from Earth is all kinds of awesome, but I think Past Through Tomorrow edges it out given the parameters of the project. I was planning to include Sturgeon’s More than Human somewhere. The short stories aren’t frequently reference, but I’ll take a look (and at least read them myself!)

I wish I could include all those, but just not enough space. They’ll be on the larger list, though. Martian Chronicles may be on the list of 50 though. I’m treading lightly with Crichton and Stephen King because of the inevitable “but they’re not sci fi writers” thing. :: sigh ::

First, thank you so much for all your insight. I know that there are all sorts of odd issues like those that you mention, which is why I would get total buy-in from the library and details on what exactly can be accepted for donation before I embarked on anything. There’s no point in working to get something they can’t (or don’t want to) use.

In chatting with the reference librarian, she said that they mainly get books from Baker & Taylor and that they also get things unavailable from them through alibris or similar, so at least the door is open to get things from other sources.

I’m hoping we can do this primarily with donations from outside the library’s budget. I don’t expect them to be able to freely divert funds from other programs. And by donations, I mean cash, so we can acquire volumes that meet whatever standards they have. Hopefully it won’t matter where private citizens get them from.

I’ll check on the rules for paperback vs. hardback. There are a number of trade paperbacks in the sci fi collection and a couple of mass-market. I assume they’d want to avoid MM paperbacks as much as possible, but there have been a lot of trade paperback re-releases of classics lately, so we might be okay there.
I rarely see any pre-bound books. There are also a couple of key titles such as Rendezvous with Rama over in the relatively disorganized “paperback” section. Since they do have a few MMs in the regular sci-fi section, I’m going to suggest that a few titles be move over if possible.

Yeah, it sounds that way. Keep on fighting the good fight, though. Your work is appreciated.

I’m considering Mission of Gravity and will look at Brother to Dragons for the next group. I plan to use First Lensman as the main title for the Lensman series with a note that it represents the series. (I know it’s not actually first, but it sounds first-y and has Lensman in the title. Oh well)

On preview -
Liebowitz is on the list. Algernon is borderline at the moment.

And next…the list

IMO dump The Past Through Tomorrow for Stranger in a Strange Land. I don’t even consider them in the same league, though YMMV of course.

As far as the Star Wars crap, it doesn’t disturb me that there’s some crap, but it really bothers me that 20% of the entire collection is spin off crap from one single series. I can only hope that someone with exceptionally bad taste is buying this stuff for the library, a far better situation than that of the library spending its own limited acquisition money on it.

Here is the list so far. Only 47 at the moment. :slight_smile: I just yoinked the two YAs off the list (The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time). I can do YAs separately if needed. I also bumped Forever Peace to the next category. I added A Fire Upon the Deep and The Mote in God’s Eye and still thinking about various suggestions. One thing you’ll notice is that I’ve included a number of more recent works.

Have fun tearing it apart!!
Adams, Douglas - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Asimov, Isaac - Caves of Steel
Asimov, Isaac - Foundation
Asimov, Isaac - I, Robot
Atwood, Margaret - The Handmaid’s Tale
Bacigalupi, Paolo - The Windup Girl
Bester, Alfred - The Stars My Destination
Bradbury, Ray - Fahrenheit 451
Brooks, Max - World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Burgess, Anthony - A Clockwork Orange
Card, Orson Scott - Ender’s Game
Card, Orson Scott - Speaker for the Dead
Chabon, Michael - The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
Clarke, Arthur C. - 2001: A Space Odyssey
Clarke, Arthur C. - Childhood’s End
Clarke, Arthur C. - Rendezvous with Rama
Dick, Philip K. - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Dick, Philip K. - The Man in the High Castle
Frank, Pat - Alas, Babylon
Gibson, William - Neuromancer
Haldeman, Joe - The Forever War
Heinlein, Robert A. - The Past Through Tomorrow
Heinlein, Robert A. - Starship Troopers
Heinlein, Robert A. - The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Herbert, Frank - Dune
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Le Guin, Ursula K. - The Left Hand of Darkness
McCarthy, Cormack - The Road
Miller Jr., Walter M. - A Canticle For Leibowitz
Niven, Larry - Ringworld
Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry - Lucifer’s Hammer
Niven, Larry and Pournelle, Jerry - The Mote In God’s Eye
Orwell, George - Nineteen Eighty-Four
Pohl, Frederik - Gateway
Scalzi, John - Old Man’s War
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft - Frankenstein
Shute, Nevil - On the Beach
Simak, Clifford - Way Station
Simmons, Dan - Hyperion
Stephenson, Neal - Snow Crash
Verne, Jules - Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Vinge, Vernor - A Fire Upon the Deep
Vonnegut, Kurt - Slaughterhouse-Five
Wells, H. G. - The War Of The Worlds
Wells, H.G. - The Time Machine
Willis, Connie - Doomsday Book
Wilson, Robert Charles - Spin

I think I may have to violate my own 3-per-author rule and include SiaSL.

WRT Star Wars junk - yeah, that it is all from a single series is pretty unbelievable. I agree that some diversity in crap is called for.

I would dump Speaker for the Dead for one of your second tier. Another Heinlein, or Algernon.

I’m rethinking 1984 – I’m wonder if it’s more Cold War political polemic than science fiction. And you could say the same thing about On the Beach. Both are outstanding books, but IMO are more fiction than science fiction.

Generally speaking, though, it’s a very fine list.


1984 has to stay on the list because it’s on so many “top science fiction lists.” I consider it firmly in the sci-fi genre myself, but it’s really the former reason that it needs to stay.

On the Beach is post-apocalyptic, and thus science fiction. It’s certainly an essential of the post-apoc subgenre, but I might be willing to bump it off this list. (hate to see it go, though!)

I would dump “Old Man’s War” for sure. It’s got an interesting setup, but it’s basically military SF.