10. Dan Simmons – The Ilium/Olympus
It is hard to describe The Ilium/Olympus cycle as simply sci-fi, because it definitely oversteps in many other genres. It somehow resembles Terry Pratchett’s humorous portrayal of a modern-day person (Dr. Thomas Hockenberry, PhD in Classics) who finds himself in the world of the Trojan War. But Simmons goes far beyond the humorous. His solipsistic philosophical ventures go as far as incorporating Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with Marcel Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time”, Greek mythology, space-time travel and Homer. Even people who are not usually tempted by the sci-fi genre would find the story provocative and challenging intellectually. Above all, the two books are very pleasant to read, but not that easy to digest – a combination that you do not find often in modern literature.
9. Clifford D. Simak – Project Pope
Simak, the winner of three Hugo awards, proclaimed by his writing peers in SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) to be Grand Master, stands as one of the greatest writers of the genre. Unlike Clarke for example Simak is more interested in the philosophical and moral aspects of the technically superior future of civilization.
For me personally, his greatest achievement came in the form of “Project Pope” – an allegoric tale for the ever-present gnoseological search of the ultimate truth. To make matters more complicated Simak clashes the cold, mechanic logics of the immortal robots to the intuitive search of the human nature in a novel that keeps you on the edge until the last page! A definite must-read for all sci-fi lovers!
8. Robert Heinlein – Stranger In A Strange Land
In a sci-fi version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book Heinlein gives us the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human child who was raised by Martians after his parents died on a mission to Mars. Possessing superhuman intelligence, Smith has to come to terms with Earth’s reality – not only physically but morally and intellectually as well. It is in this respect that Heinlein excels and delivers his true writing mastery – Smith’s religious ventures are allegoric critics of the corrosion of church institutions in the XX century. The story also depicts the recurring phenomenon of the clash between formal and informal authority – embodied in the World Government and Smith respectively.
The book rightfully earned the Hugo award in 1962 and in 2012 the Library of congress included it in the list of 88 “Books that shaped America”.
7. Dan Simmons – Hyperion Cantos
Simmons rightfully earns a second spot in my Top 10 list, this time for his epic tetralogy Hyperion Cantos. The author once again proves his superior talent for syncretism, mixing up Decameron-like structure for the first book with romantic references to John Keats and a critical allegory of the absolutist role of church in human society. Once again Simmons explores time travels and the ensuing paradoxes with unrivaled mastery.
The books (especially the first one) balance on the frontier between science fiction and fantasy, still heavily leaning on the former. Simmons style is a pleasure to read and quickly absorbs you in the story line. The ideas are intellectually challenging and again would interest readers that normally are not particularly keen on sci-fi.
6. Stanislaw Lem – Solaris
Perhaps the most philosophical and existential book on my list, the sixth place belongs to Stanislaw Lem and his 1961 masterpiece Solaris. A psychologist travels to an orbit station in distress to find out that the crew is slowly going insane, driven to hallucinations by the planet beneath. To make matters even worse Dr Kris Kelvin is visited by the spirit of his dead wife that triggers his sense of guilt and insecurity.
Lem is more interested in the psychology of his characters and the motives behind their actions, which sharply separates him from the action-based American sci-fi literature. His book remains one of the most influential examples of the genre of classical science fiction, more than half a century after its publication.
5. Isaac Asimov – Nightfall
When you make a list of sci-fi books it would be blasphemy not to include Isaac Asimov. He will actually appear twice in my selection, quite deservedly.
Nightfall is one of his many masterpieces, perhaps the strongest in emotional power. On a fictional planet with two Suns, society does not recognize the concept of night – it is a distant, forgotten memory of a time long past. Then all of a sudden the unthinkable happens – a dual eclipse that welcomes the darkness for the first time in millennia.
What I personally find most amusing in Asimov’s books is his ability to create vivid, plastic, complex worlds and contexts – so lively and believable that you almost forget you read a science fiction novel. In this regard Nightfall is his greatest achievement. His description of the ensuing apocalypse somehow reminds us of Pliny the Elder’s description of the Vesuvius eruption over Pompey.
4. Frank Herbert – Dune
Written in 1965 Frank Herbert’s Dune leans heavily on an issue that was in its heyday at this time – environmental struggles for a cleaner Earth, the possibility of climatic catastrophe, global warming and so on. But Herbert managed to create a fully vivid universe, strongly influenced by the romantics of the desert, Mediterranean legends and social struggles and messianic references.
In 1984 no other but David Lynch created a film adaptation on the novel that soon became iconic and enhanced the appeal of the book even further. Paul Muad’Dib is probably one of the most famous and beloved sci-fi protagonists of all time, and the book remains a must-read for every devoted fan of science fiction.
3. Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
A blood-freezing anti-utopian vision of the future where fire-brigades main function is to burn every outlawed book (which includes almost every written book). Strongly resembling Orwell’s vision in 1984, Bradbury scolds the book burning of both Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR, pointing to conformism and obedience as the greatest social sins and threats to free society. The novel tones are bleak, if not black; cold, but for the menacing 451 Fahrenheit fire of the burning books. Unlike Orwell though, Bradbury puts an optimistic end to his story, with the reformed Guy Montag ready to help in rebuilding a normal society.
2. Arthur C. Clarke – 2001: A Space Odyssey
The term “science fiction” presupposes three possible types of writing:
A balance between fiction and science.
Stronger fiction than science.
Stronger science than fiction.
Perhaps the most classic novel of the third type is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heavily influenced by the space race between the US and the USSR in the 60s, the book depicts a futuristic look on the development of the Moon as the New Frontier, artificial intelligence and space exploration. Clarke’s style was so scientific that many of his readers truly believed that conquering the Moon by the end of the millennium was inevitable.
Many readers regard 2001: A Space Odyssey as science fiction as it should be written. But the novel is hardly likable for people who are not keen on the genre. In this regard it falls back to many of the other books I have included in the list, especially the number one spot.
1. Isaac Asimov – The Foundation series
The godfather of science fiction, the greatest master of the genre and one of the most influential writers of the XX century – my most favourite sci-fi book was written by Isaac Asimov. Or to be rather more precise – a series of books.
The Foundation deals with the ever-present desire of people and society in general to know their fate, to glance into the future. Hari Seldon discovers a whole new science called psychohistory – a mathematic model for analysis and prognosis of social phenomena on a large scale that can ultimately draw the outlines of the future.
From then on, Asimov is at his elemental best. He has a world to create, or rather multiple worlds, a history, different societies, political struggles on galactic scale, not forgetting riveting personal stories and plot twists. This is simply sublime literature! If you have never read a single science fiction book before, The Foundation series is the one you should start with!