Cutting my science fiction teeth

This year, for the first time in, say fifteen years, I read a science fiction novel: Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke. I got it for 50 cents at a church book sale. I liked it very much. I decided I want to read more science fiction.

But since I hadn’t really read anything of the sort* since I was 14, I decided to go slow. I read a bunch of Star Wars novels. So far, so good. Granted, they don’t get much respect, but they’re fun.

For my next choice, I picked up another book I got for 50 cents, Manifold: Time, by Stephen Baxter. Yikes! I’m only about halfway through, but man, talk about jumping into the deep end! Every other page is a mini-science lecture on quantum physics, jet propulsion, chemistry, astrophysics, etc. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thoroughly enjoying it and am glad I’m reading it (so please don’t spoil it for me!) but this is a little too much for me this early in the game.

So help me out with my reading list, guys. I’m looking for canon, for classics, for bestsellers, for obscure cult anomalies, for just general good science fiction that does not make a head warped by liberal arts and humanities classes explode. Is there anything you think a sci-fi newbie without a science background would enjoy? Anything I simply must read?

*For the record, I have read a lot of alternative history. Does that count?

If you have the stomach for sweeping sagas that involve a large cast of characters, I would heartily recommend a series of 6 books written by Peter Hamilton (they were originally published in the UK as 3 books, but each was so big that they were split in half for their US release):

The Reality Dysfunction (Parts 1 & 2)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Parts 1 & 2)
The Naked God (Parts 1 & 2)

These books have are true “space opera” and deal with an interstellar empire with a lot of advanced weaponry and technology.

Another sweeping saga I would recommend is the “Saga of Pliocene Exile” books by Julian May, made up of the following:

The Many Colored Land
The Golden Torc
The Nonborn King
The Adversary

This series has an eclectic mix of time travel, aliens and psychic powers.

Yet another sweeping saga would be a series by David Brin collectively known as the “Uplift Saga” which includes:

Sundiver (a prequel book)
Startide Rising
The Uplift War
Brightness Reef
Infinity’s Shore
*Heaven’s Reach/i]

This is another grand space opera with a galactic empire (that is not particularly well disposed toward humans) and lots of alien races.

As you might have guessed, I like sweeping sagas that have plenty of time to develop the characters. I read these series as they were coming out, meaning I had to wait a year or so between each book. Fortunately, the books have now all been published and each series has a definite “end” to it.



Try some short story compilations by Isaac Asimov.

Also, try Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I read that recently and thought it was really good.

I could go on and on about this, but probably the best introduction to short fiction (which is a huge part of SFs’ history) would be reading the SFWA’s Grandmaster collections, edited by Frederik Pohl. I believe there are three of them. The Grandmasters are: Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Lester Del Rey, Frederik Pohl, Damon Knight, A.E. Van Vogt, and Jack Vance. This isn’t a complete collection by any means (where is Zelazny? Sturgeon?) but it would be good introduction for any ‘newbie’–the books include a few stories by each author, as well as an introduction discussing the author in question.

I’m in a hurry right now, but I’ll try to stop back later, if this thread isn’t already innudated. However, one last recommendation I’d make is for Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” one of the classics of the field.

Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy.

The second “Foundation” trilogy by Benford, Bear and Brin.

[A major second for Brin, his work is very well written. I’m also very happy to say that after corresponding with him, he is equally nice to exchange emails with.]

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Heinlein.

Works by Edmond Hamilton, for some early examples.

The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury

(more a fantasy style, but still good)
Some fantasy authors who rate in this discussion:

The House on the Borderland
William Hope Hodgeson

The City of the Singing Flame
Clark Ashton Smith

Golden Apples of the Sun
Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

These are good starting places.

Ringworld” and “Ringworld Engineers
Larry Niven

The “Rendezvous with Rama” series
Arthur C. Clarke

I strongly recommend Alfred Bester, The Demolished Man (won the first ever Hugo Award) and The Stars My Destination.

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller. Absolutely essential reading.

Anything by Fredrick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth:

The Space Merchants

(One of the most translated sci-fi books in history.)

Search the Sky

(A personal favorite.)


Gladiator at Law

<Donning asbestos underpants>
For the love of all that is good and pure, stay away from Asimov, Clark and Niven! Yes, they forged the way, and yes they are in some ways the giants on whose shoulders many other authors stand, however, if you are looking to get in to science fiction for the firs time I think that you will find them a bit of a chore.

I would highly recommend the book (and the following series) from which I get my username. Ender’s Game, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Perfect for those new to the genre, this first in the series is a quick, light, fun read. The follow-ups, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, get a bit heavier, so I think that this series could be what you are looking for.

Asbestos underwear or not, I don’t understand why you would say that. Aside from the fact that those are the authors I read when I first discovered science fiction as a child, the OP specifically stated that he read a book by Clark and liked it. Personally, I find the works of Asimov and Clark a little too old fashioned for my current tastes, but I would still recommend them for somebody just getting interested in the genre.

Works by Greg Bear, on the other hand, I would definitely advise holding off for awhile (unless you happen to be a physicist).


As for Specific Recommendations:
[li]Earth, by David Brinn. I consider this to be his masterpiece, and a book that I revisit much.[/li][li]The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk. This is a book that is set about 50 years in to the future and deals with (among other things) a polyamorous utopian society and how they deal with a conflict with a military/right wing Christian society. Very well done.[/li][li]Under the Eye of God, and A Covenant of Justice, by David Gerrold. In the future, humans have become oppressed by their own creations. Pretty darn good.[/li][li]**At Winters End **,by Robert Silverberg. Another huge favorite, set far in the future concerning humanity emerging from their underground lairs where they had survived some sort of nuclear winter (with a really cool twist).[/li][/ul]

For some old, rather over-the-top pulp scifi, there’s always Doc Smith’s Lensman series, if you can find it.

I’ve found Walter Jon Williams to always be a safe bet.

If you want something a bit more bizarre and eclectic, you can’t go wrong with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. His command of the English language is rather startling.

Point taken, point taken. However, IMHO Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. happened to just be a lucky place to start. I think that this says it best:

They are a bit dated, and have such huge bodies of work to wade through (for (again MHO) not much reward) that I fear the newbie would give up on the genre all together. For this reason, I would tend to not suggest these authors for someone just getting in to the genre (and to be honest I would be picky about which Robert Heinlein I suggested as well). Somthing a bit more fresh, I should think would be a good idea.

I had a similar problem with Gibson. By the time I read him I had played Shadowrun, watched Johnnie Mnemonic etc. etc. and so I found myself thinking “that has so been done to death” while reading him (even though he did it first!)

The Vorkosigan series, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Easy to read, gripping, well-written, excellent character development, and by far the funniest books I ve ever read.

Thanks for the suggestions so far.

I actually read The Stars My Destination and some Bradbury when I was still in middle school, which was probably the last time I read any SF. I was assigned A Canticle for Leibowitz and Stranger in a Strange Land in high school, but in typical ornery teenage fashion I guess I shrugged them off. I bet they’re still at my parents’ house.

Also, I’m not looking for sweeping series as much as self-contained novels. I think that’s another reason someone like me might shy away from science fiction, and I think, fantasy – it seems that a lot of stories rely on a major committment from the reader. I’d rather get a feel for the genre first before I embark on a 15,000-page journey.

I’m writing all these suggestions down, though. Keep 'em coming! Convert me!

I see Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t been mentioned yet. Good book about what Martian colonization would look like.

I generally only read SF that is highly recommended by others as well. That being said, Liebowitz by Miller (as previously mentioned by Biffy) is brilliant.

I would also (along with many others) highly recommend Ender’s Game. I would, however, question enderX’s characterization of the book as a “…light, fun read.” If you read this expecting a comic romp through the cosmos you will be disapointed.

Boldface, underline, exclamation point. One of the best books of the genre, yet it never ceases to amaze me how few people have heard of it.

If you want serious SF, Kaspar, try The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Cool concept, very thought-provoking. Was sold as ordinary fiction by the publisher, rather than science-fiction, because it’s got kind of a highbrow theme. Read it now before Hollywood has a chance to screw it up.

If you just want pulpy fun, try Timothy Zahn. He gets a bad rap among SF purists because he writes about zippy spaceships and aliens that look vaguely but not exactly like some Earth animal, but he delivers the space-opera goods. If you’ve read Star Wars novels, you’ve probably already done his Admiral Thrawn stories. Now try The Conqueror’s Trilogy.

If you want to read something that isn’t written very well from a literature point of view but that will blow you away conceptually, try Robert L. Forward’s The Dragon’s Egg. It’s tough going for the first quarter or so, because it’s obvious he doesn’t have a clue how to write human beings, but stick with it; the strength of the ideas carries it well over the top. The ending gave me chills.

If you want to read an absolute classic that has dated badly in some elements but that still represents the brilliant forward thinking of the genre at its best, and that despite certain things that don’t hold up will still give you a lot to think about, check out Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. A unique and still standalone effort, since it treats an idea much-neglected in SF.

I don’t know that he’s all that difficult. Moving Mars, I thought, was a lot of fun. Bear isn’t hard to read compared to, say, Zelazny, who sometimes comes off like James-Joyce-as-sociologist.

On preview: The first Ender’s Game is good, Speaker for the Dead less so but still interesting, and the third and fourth books I did not enjoy (didn’t even finish the fourth). I haven’t read Shadow.