50 Essential Science Fiction Novels for a Public Library

Clifford Simak - City
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - Cat’s Cradle

and as much as I dislike it…

Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged

I see you dropped Heineiln’s Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m sorry, but that must be on the list. It’s one of the most influential American novels of all time. It may not be a great book, but it’s an important one.

What about anything by Stephen King? The Stand? The Gunslinger books?

I noticed you knocked Tolkien’s books as “not science fiction”…I presume we’re eschewing fantasy altogether? Because to me, books like Clockwork Orange are also only vaguely sci-fi…more like “possible near future” type books, if you get what I mean. What about a book like The Road, then?

What about Sagan’s Contact?

Thanks for the compliment, Green Bean. This’ll be brief; I’m heading to bed, but FGIE has a point: including books like On the Beach, A Clockwork Orange, The Man in the High Castle, and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, really makes me wonder where the line is that we’re drawing between fantasy and SF. If The Road counts, then why not The Stand? If Alt-History is on the table, then why no Turtledove?

I’d swap out On the Beach for Warday. Warday does the “post-nuclear war” thing much better, IMHO, and Childhood’s End does the, “What do we do when we’re the last humans and this is it?” question much, much better.

(People, CE’s been out forever: I feel silly for hiding my point with a spoiler tag, but you really should go read it if you haven’t already. It’s short, too.)

Iain Banks is on a very short list of the Best Sci-FI Writers of the last 20 years. Not to have one of his on your list is a mistake, IMHO. Pick Use of Weapons if you’re a frustrated English Lit grad student, though the unconventional structure actually adds a lot to the story, IMHO. Pick The Player of Games (or Excession or Look to Windward) if you want an interesting, seductively easy to read tale, with several interesting things to say about whichever topic he was addressing (Out of Context problems, how people heal from wartime trauma, etc…) All of his previous ones that others and I have mentioned, are much more than space opera or a list of the new and shiny. Pick whichever one you want, but you need one, again IMHO.

I’d dump Slaughterhouse Five and World War Z; the first because his short stories are much better at getting to the point—I’d support Welcome to The Monkey House on your list—and WWZ because it’s more fantasy than SF.

This is fun; thanks for the OP.

by whose standards?

Mine, for one. If that doesn’t convince you, there are plenty of novels and stories recognized as science fiction don’t involve space, aliens, or time travel. Even popular science fiction films don’t always have such-- consider The Matrix and Inception.

As for the list, I applaud the decision to omit SiaSL. It’s probably not even RAH’s best-known novel any more-- Starship Troopers probably has that honor, due to the film and TV adaptations. Science fiction authors who seek to emulate Heinlein no longer, as far as I can tell, emulate SiaSL. John Varley appears to emulate the juvies, actually. I don’t deny that the book was influential in the 60’s, though.

Speaking of Heinlein’s juvies, I’m partial to Tunnel in the Sky and would rate it above The Past Through Tomorrow. I’d not mind seeing Heinlein limited to two titles, though, and would suggest that two is a better limit than three, as it adds room for scope but still allows masters to be recognized.

However, Greenbean’s list has a lot of honorable choices-- Wells, Shelley, Verne, and so on, books I don’t particularly like but understand appearing on the list. Maybe SiaSL should be on there for similar reasons.

I’d like to commend Gene Wolfe to the list, although my suggestion would be The Shadow of the Torturer, which is probably too far toward the fantasy end of the speculative spectrum.

I’d also suggest that Card be limited to Ender’s Game.

Stanislaw Lem strikes me as a noticeable omission, although I’m not really a fan of his work.

Speaking of Varley, I’m partial to his stuff and would suggest Titan, the starting point of his Gaea Trilogy. His Hugo and Nebula wins were for novellas and short stories, though.

Edit: remembered Poul Anderson-- maybe Tau Zero, although it’s been a long time since I read it. I’m fond of Brain Wave as well.

Green Bean, you include Hyperion, which I agree with, but it’s only the first half of the story unless you also include Fall of Hyperion, which I think is just as well-written.

Thanks to all for all the input!

Heavily line-by-line here…

It’s also one of the most acclaimed, recommended, and popular of the newer science fiction novels. I agree that it’s not terribly original, but according to the scope of the project set out in post 23, it must be included. It’s probably the first thing I would say if people asked me for some recommendations of some newer works. (I picked it up because of this thread I made in 2009, by the way.)

The first two are on the second list. As far as Atlas Shrugged…I agree with you 100% that it’s an important work of science fiction, but having it on this list of 50 wouldn’t serve my purposes. It would just be a distraction. I mean, you couldn’t even mention it without saying you disliked it. I can’t mention it without saying something like “in spite of the philosophy…” I tried splitting out the ones that were considered more as literature than sci fi, but that ended up creating more problems than it solved. Judged as science fiction alone, it wouldn’t get near the top 50, IMHO. It will certainly be on the list somewhere, though, along with Anthem. (I can’t decide whether The Fountainhead counts.)

As I said somewhere upthread, I’m treading lightly with King. The Stand is absolutely one of the top books in (post-)apocalyptic sci fi, but I can’t put it in the top 50 for some of the same reasons as I cited for The Fountainhead. As far as the Gunslinger, I’ve put a lot of thought into whether it falls more on the side of sci fi or fantasy (or maybe something else entirely), and whether it can be considered post-apocalyptic. The answer for now is “I dunno,” but it will end up on a list somewhere.

So people dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear war is somehow more fantastical than a bunch of orcs and hobbits running around looking for a magical ring? :stuck_out_tongue: “Possible near-future” is science fiction. I know some people do like to define it more narrowly, but I’m going with the broader consensus for this list. That definition excludes most of what we consider “fantasy,” but some works have feet in both worlds.

Sagan’s Contact is notable but not essential.

See my answer above to some of this. For the purposes of this list, I’m including alternate history in the science fiction category. Turtledove will be included in the larger list, but thanks for reminding me. I’m not sure why you mention On the Beach as it doesn’t have any fantastical elementas at all. IIRC, A Clockwork Orange doesn’t either. (I haven’t read The Man in the High Castle yet)

As for where the line is between fantasy and science fiction - well, to a large extent it just comes down to a judgment call. There’s lots of information out there to help me make a decision, and all of these choices are based on broad-based research, but utimately I just have to decide what counts and what doesn’t. The presence or absence of magic/supernatural elements is one important factor, but clearly not the only one.

Which point? People will be looking for Slaughterhouse-Five. WWZ is an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel that deals with a global pandemic, so I’m not sure why it would be considered fantasy. Because the virus turns people into zombies?

And you’re welcome. This is fun for me too.

Those reasons all play into my leaving it off in the first place. It has simply faded in importance as time has passed. But I think I have to add it in.

Allowing more from each author better serves the purpose of this particular list. More scope will be found in the expanded list. There are certainly pros and cons to both approaches, and there are some great lists out there that only allow one book per author.

To be clear, there are a lot of books on the list that I don’t particularly like! They’re on the list because they should be on the list, not because I personally thought they were enjoyable. I’m trying to make it as unbiased as possible.

Solaris is on the second list. The Cyberiad will be included somewhere as well. Titan is under consideration as is Tau Zero, but I think they’ll likely end up on the second list.

Hey Margaret - if you want to argue that “science fiction” is something entirely different than what everybody else thinks it is, please start a new thread about it and stop hijacking this one.

Still not buying it, but it’s your list. Early on reading the book I was V ERY excited, thinking this would be a fascinating exploration of what happens when someone who has lived a full life and isn’t just a malleable kid gets made into a soldier. But by the end I found myself wishing heartily that a more accomplished writer had had the same idea. He missed a lot of good opportunities.

Yes, because the virus turns people into zombies, a well known fantasy creature. It would also be considered fantasy if the virus turned people into werewolves or vampires. Just because a writer has come up with some technological jazz hands for their story doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy.

Green Bean, you have a list of science fiction books people like. There is no particular significance to most of the books on your list. You could break this out based historical growth of the genre, a breakdown of the different themes of science fiction, quality of writing, or some other meaningful criteria. Otherwise you’re just providing a list of popular books which should really be full of Star Wars and Star Trek fan novels which have probably outsold all the rest. IMHO that is, make your list however you like.

IMHO, neither Steven King nor Margaret Atwood has written sci-fi. Alt- or post-apolycaliptic (sp?), sure. But not what I would call sci-fi.

I’m on my tablet and none of the spellings for post-apo…ya know…look right!!

And I don’t think that 1984 qualifies, either.

If you have only one Heinlein, make it The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

If you have two Heinleins, they should be Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. These two have had the biggest impact on the culture at large. They present two aspects of the same philosophy, yet they were popular with radically different audiences.

If you have three Heinleins, I would say Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Past Through Tomorrow.
Obviously, Niven’s magnum opus is Ringworld. If you have a second Niven book, it should be a collection of short stories. Niven himself once wrote, “If you are a writer, you make your money writing novels, but you learn your craft writing short stories”. I don’t know which collections are in print at the moment, but you should try to find one that includes “Inconstant Moon” and the essays “Bigger than Worlds” and “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”.

N-Space has the first and last; Playgrounds of the Mind has Bigger than Worlds. Playgrounds also has “Convergent Series,” another delightful short story.

Evil Captor said my feelings about why WWZ’s fantasy, much better than I could. Michael Crichton, before he was Michael Crichton! encapsulated why I think—despite how it’s labeled—Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really science fiction, despite the aliens and time-travel.

It’s great, it’s absurd, and perhaps that’s the exact approach needed to explain senseless tragedies like firebombing civilians, but I wouldn’t it call it sci-fi. I’m probably in a small minority with that view, FWIW, and I’m sure my devotion to the harder side of the Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness is why.

Do we think Gravity’s Rainbow counts, or are you trying to include books that people will actually check out and read?

Startide Rising is more stand-alone than the Jijo books, and more dolphin-ny.

Hmmm. Just to start:

Tuf Voyaging, Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin
I, Robot, The Robots of Dawn, Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov
Childhood’s End, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Starship Troopers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, Space Cadet, Glory Road, Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
The Forever War, Tool of the Trade, All My Sins Remembered, Mindbridge, The Hemingway Hoax by Joe Haldeman
*The Mote in God’s Eye, Footfall *by Niven and Pournelle
The Last Ship by William Brinkley
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Lots of great sf short story collections I would put on the shelves, too.

I agree.

I’m a big fan of Fforde, and have read this book, but agree that it should not be included. First, the rest of the series is not out yet, so we don’t know where it is going. Second, while I agree about the world building, it is far too complex for a beginning sf reader, and anyway the world building in the Thursday Next series is even better. Having the Book World concept is good - making it work is great. So I’d go with The Eyre Affair if you had to have something by him, but there are 50 works which are better.

Can I suggest some Greg Bear? Eon is the one of his I remember most, but he’s written some classics.

not sure about this one. I didn’t much like it, and have a hard time imagining
how someone not brought up under the shadow of the bomb would feel.
Davy is a far better book, which will stay relevant.

How about Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon.

Emphatically seconded.

Galactic Patrol started the *Lensmen *series, and it stands alone pretty well.

I don’t know if it’s in the same league as some of the titles on the list, but James P. Hogan’s Code of the Lifemaker has long been a personal favorite.