These books have become part of the popular culture, have influenced thought, or become popular memes in our society, some to the point of the ideas becoming separate from the book that launched them.  Just think of “Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal”, or Frankenstein’s monster, or the Three Laws of Robotics. Some have even introduced new words to our language, like “grok” or “Waldo”.

Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
Synopsis: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who lives in Middle Earth, and finds a magic ring, which he leaves (50 years later) to his nephew Frodo Baggins to destroy by throwing it into a live volcano. 
Why: This story is now famous thanks to the movies, but used to be a geek right of passage.  The archetype of all “swords and sorcery” fantasy since and the inspiration for countless video games, Dungeons and Dragons, etc.   While this fantasy book is not science fiction, its influence on the entire genre is so great it has to be included.

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Synopsis:  Don’t think you know this story if you have not read the book.  The monster (properly called Frankenstein’s Creature) in this book is intelligent, articulate, and longs to be accepted by other humans who seem to fear him.   In the story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein re-animates a body pieced together from various corpses.  The resulting creature is abandoned by his creator and suffers a lot of neglect and abuse.  The creature gets revenge by murdering Victor’s brother.  The creature demands a mate be made, which the Doctor complies with, then destroys.  The enraged creature murders all of Victor’s family and leads Frankenstein on a chase across the world, ending in the Arctic.
Why: This story has become so much a part of culture that we take its precepts for granted, that man should not “play God” and bestow life, a concept that was repeated with later robot stories.  Most of our impressions of this story – the mute creature with the flat head – come from the movies, not from this book.  Read the story yourself and learn why this is a classic. 

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
Synopsis: A series of short stories relating the advancement of intelligent, thinking robots, mostly told through the character of Susan Calvin, Robopsychologist.  Dr. Asimov introduces the “Three Laws of Robotics” which are an integral part of all of his stories.  This book is gentle and has a kind heart as robots are introduced with a sense of wonder.  Stories include “Robbie” about a robot babysitter, and Runaway, about a lost robot on the surface of Mercury.  The stories are inventive and original and will make you think. 
Why:  The Three Laws of Robotics are still being talked about seriously today.  The stories are very good and introduce a number of concepts that are carried forward from “Frankenstein”, believe it or not. These stories have also just become part of our culture.  Has nothing to do with the Will Smith movie, so skip that.

Stranger in a Strange Land  - Robert Heinlein.
Synopsis: Valentine Michael Smith, Martian.  Occupation: Grok.  Valentine Michael Smith is the only survivor (as a child) of a lost colony on Mars, who encountered and was raised by Martians.  Upon his return to Earth, the child-like Smith has to learn Earth customs, and tries to teach Martian philosophy to humans.  He ends up becoming a messiah-like figure with a large following.  
Why: This is a story that had a big effect on the 60’s, with its story of becoming “one” with the universe and free love.  It’s a bit dated now, but this book is quoted or referenced often, even if the person doing the quoting is unaware of the fact.  At least it lets you take a fresh look at what being human looks like, and how much we are a product of our culture.  I’ve always believed that the character of Jubal is actually the author as he saw himself.   The first science fiction book to become a best-seller outside of the genre.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein. 
Synopsis: Another book that is nothing like the movie.  The interesting parts of this book are not as much the battle scenes featuring troops in powered armor (called Capsule Troopers, or Drops) but the philosophic discussions that take place in flashback to the main character’s civics classes held in high school.  In this society, only veterans are allowed to vote, and the little classroom scenes illustrate the author’s reasons why.
Why: First of all, this is the seminal Powered Armor story.  The main character, Johnny Rico, is a kid from South America who fills an everyman role in the story.   The political and sociological discussions are as interesting as the combat scenes and the details of powered armor.  This is also just good storytelling and a good read.

Gray Lensman – E.E. “Doc” Smith
Synopsis:  The Lens is a magical device bestowed by the ancient race of Arisians on the Lensmen (who are not all human) that denotes absolute reliability and integrity, as well as psychic powers.  Kimball Kennison becomes a “gray” or unattached Lensman responsible only to his own conscience in upholding galactic law.  Kennison  fights the forces of Eddore and Boscone, working to fight illegal drugs and smuggling on an ever increasing scale.
Why: The term “Space Opera” was coined to denote this type of galaxy spanning, interstellar scale wars between space fleets that is continued today in “Star Wars”.  This is the place where all this started.  “Doc” Smith’s prose is full of “unimaginable” and “ultra beyond ultra” in a war that eventually ends in whole planets being used as weapons.   The good guys are very good, the bad guys really bad, and there are no gray areas, despite the title.   While the whole “Lensman” series is consistently wonderful, this is my favorite book of the set.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov
Synopsis: My favorite book of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov for many years was the only book I could get my hands on, so I can say it stands alone quite well as the second book in the original trilogy and is definitely the best book of the three.  Harry Seldon invented the science of psychohistory, the mathematical analysis of events in the future.  His precept was that while a single person’s actions are not predictable, the actions of great masses of people are.  He predicts the end of the current Galactic Empire and the beginning of 10,000 years of chaos.  To forestall this event, he creates two Foundations “at opposite ends of the galaxy” to fill this gap.   What he did not foresee is the “Mule”, one of the most interesting characters in science fiction.   What happens to the first Foundation when Seldon’s Plan breaks down?
Why?:  This is just solid storytelling and world building on a grand scale--a sort of “rise and fall of the Roman Empire” set in space.  This is considered to be Asimov’s greatest creation (along with the robots).

Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke
Synopsis: A giant asteroid is found in orbit around the sun, whose origin is definitely not natural.  Astronauts are sent to investigate and explore this artifact.
Why: We read science fiction for a variety of reasons – one of which is certainly to experience a sense of wonder as we visit places and times in our imagination.  Rama is one of those places that the journey is far more important than the destination.    Don’t expect to get all the answers in this book, which has won every award available to it.  “Hard” science fiction at its finest.

2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C Clarke
Synopsis: This description refers to the book, not the movie.  Arthur Clarke co-wrote the movie with Stanley Kubrick, and then wrote the novel version. The book reveals far more than the movie about the backstory of HAL, the astronauts, the Monolith Artifacts, and especially the ending and the Star Child.
Why: HAL the computer and the future world envisioned in 2001 has become such a part of our culture that we take this for granted, but here is where a lot of our thoughts about what life should be today, in the 21st Century.  When this story came out in 1969, we had only just landed on the moon.  The movie and the book are different but both satisfying experiences – do both.   HAL continues to be a “touchstone” in artificial intelligence development.  Note: the sequel movie, 2010, is very good but just about incomprehensible without reading the book first. 

The Zero Stone and Star Guard – Andre Norton
Synoposis: I’ve grouped these two books together as being indicative of the talent of Andre Norton, a prolific author who I think does not get enough credit.  The Zero Stone is the story of a prospector thrown in over his head when he comes in contact with an alien artifact, a ring worn on the outside of a spacesuit.  The story really picks up with he meets “eet”, a telepathic creature born from a cat. Star Guard is the story of a young man who does the only thing possible to him as a human, becoming an interstellar mercenary for hire to other, alien species.  The plot is amazing with a lot of twists and turns – the story is not what you think it is at all, and the ending makes you want to stand up and cheer for the human spirit.  This book would make a great movie.
Why: There is no one who has a sense of the alien like Andre Norton – her books are like no other, and really give you a sense of seeing places no one else has ever been.  The tone of her books are very dark and mysterious, and you always have a sense of much more going on beneath the surface than you are seeing.  Her books are intriguing, and you seldom can guess her plots in advance.   Andre Norton has lots of other very good books, these are just my favorites.

Dragonriders of Pern – Anne McCaffery
Synopsis: Some of the most beloved books in Science Fiction (and these are SF, not fantasy, despite having dragons).  In the distant star of Rukbat, orbited by the planet Pern, long lost colonists from the human race are besieged by “Thread”, dangerous organisms from another planet that passes by every 200 years or so. To combat this menace, the humans bio-engineer “dragons”, telepathic beasts who fly, breath fire, and have a native ability to teleport themselves and their riders.  The story begins with Lessa, who rises from the ashes of her conquered homeland to lead “All the Weyrs of Pern”.
Why:  The story of the dragon riders and their telepathic flying dragons is captivating, and the world of Pern so completely imagined that everything seems in place – all of the motivations and conflicts seem natural and so in the setting that you accept it as it is.  I would not go too far into this series, it gets a bit strange in the later books.

The Ship Who Sang – Anne McCaffery
Synopsis: Helva was born with a perfect brain, and a useless body.  Her medical treatment was to implant her brain into the body of a spaceship, where she became the living command center of the ship. To assist her is assigned a “brawn”, a more standard human who works with the living ship to earn their keep.
Why: This has always been my very favorite book – not just of science fiction, but of any fiction.  Helva is such a believable person that you accept her as she is, and laugh, cry, morn, and rejoice in her tragedies and triumphs.  Did I say I love this book?  The later attempts at making sequels never recaptured the magic of the original set of short stories.  The author also said that this is her favorite book she wrote, and that she sees herself in Helva.

Ringworld – Larry Niven
Synopsis: Louis Wu is recruited to help explore a manufactured world out in deep space by the Pierson’s Puppeteers – a three legged race of cowardly herd creatures.  They take him to the Ringworld – a ribbon of real estate the size of the Earth’s orbit. Another example of hard science fiction, taking astronomy, engineering and mathematics and making an entertaining quest adventure out of it.
Why: Another work of sheer imagination – a simple concept – making a habitable ribbon of material replace a planet – and turning it into a place of wonder and awe.  The concepts come out thick and fast, and this is just an utterly fascinating journey in a strange place.

The Reality Dysfunction – Peter Hamilton
Synopsis:  OK, this book is a stretch to the imagination in every direction possible.  The background of this novel is a complex interstellar society where humanity has divided into two factions – the “adamists” who embrace physical technology, and the “edenists” who use bitek – biological technology.  Spaceships are grown from seeds, along with space colonies.  Humans either have sophisticated embedded computers or electronic versions of telepathy.  All of this futurism is the set dressing for the Reality Disfunction – where the souls of long-dead humans return to possess the bodies of the living, with horrific results.
Why: This set of books are my favorite look into what I believe will be our future in the next 100 years as we make massive leaps forward in human/computer integration.  While the books are an absolute slog to get through – we are talking 1200 page books here – the ideas come thick and fast, and each are fascinating and interesting.  Mr. Hamilton is my favorite contemporary author of hard science fiction.  The story does get bogged down in the middle, as many do, and the ending, frankly, was very unsatisfying and abrupt given the amazing journey to get there.   The hero (Joshua Calvert) is a bit over the top, and sleeps with almost every female that walks past him.   Still, this is a wonderful visit to a marvelous, interesting future.   His later books are just as good - but he still can't write an ending.

The Complete Venus Equilateral – George O. Smith
In the far flung future –as imagined back in the 1930’s—Venus Equilateral Station is the inter-system relay point for colonies on Mars, Venus and the outer planets.   The name comes from its position at the Lagrange Point in Venus’ orbit-  making an equilateral triangle with the sun, Venus, and the station.    This 1930’s story introduces the infant science of electronics – all based on vacuum tubes—as a way to solve problems in the future.
Why:  As an engineer, it is fun to read a book where engineers are the heroes.  It also shows that people in the 30’s were just as smart as they are today – something that we all need to keep in mind.  This is modern technology with a completely different tool kit.

The Time Machine, War of the Worlds –H.G. Wells
H. G. Wells and Jules Verne are the foundations of modern science fiction, and to some extent science itself.  The two most important Wells books are these – the Time Machine, which takes a very serious look at the future of humanity, and the War of the Worlds, when Martians attack the Earth using the space cannon Jules Verne described in his “Earth to the Moon”.   The ending of WotW is especially inventive and interesting given both the literature of the time and its departure from standard storytelling.

Midnight at the Well of Souls – Jack Chalker
Synopsis: Nathan Brazil is a starship captain making his living transporting passengers on his small ship.  His varied passengers get to come along for the ride when an emergency signal deposits the group on the Well World, home of the Well of Souls – an experimental planet from a long dead race who created hundreds of different ecologies side by side in different hexagons.  In this quest story, each character is transformed by the Well of Souls into a new creature and to get home they must travel to the center of the Well of Souls itself at Midnight.
Why: This is lightweight escapist fiction – but that does not mean it is not really good at the same time.  The characters and concepts with be with you long after you put the book down.  What if mathematics were the only thing holding the universe together?

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeline L’Engle
Meg Murray is growing up (quickly) in her lively household with twin brothers, her scientist parents, and precocious little brother Charles Wallace, who is much smarter than he lets on.  One night they are whisked off during a storm by Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which on a secret mission to rescue their missing father, who has been captured by an alien intelligence during one of his experiments. 
Why: This beloved book has won a number of prizes and awards for inventive story telling that is still centered on the importance of family. Meg’s development during the story is the truly interesting part.   This is a young adult story that anyone would enjoy.

Dune – Frank Hebert
Synopsis: The Science Fiction equivalent to “Lord of the Rings”, Dune is a dense, deep dive into a future universe where planets are ruled by great Houses in a feudal system.  Central to the economy of this future is the spice “Melange”, which grants the user extended life, psychic powers, blue eyes – and addiction.  The spice allows space travel and is the foundation of several major religions.  The Spice is found only on one planet – the desert planet Arrakis, also called Dune.
 Why: A superb feat of the imagination, the author creates an entire universe of characters with conflicting motivations, deep desires, secret pacts, political backstabbing (literally), and religious agendas. The theme appears to be – from adversity can flow strength.   As much a political thriller as science fiction masterpiece and feat of world-building.  This is the definition of the word “Epic”. 

Honorable Mentions;

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Cat’s Cradle / Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes


  • A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Introduction to the world of Barsoom, ERB’s imagined version of Mars, filled with red humanoids, green four-armed Tharks, and danger around every corner.  This is the height of the Pulp Science Fiction novel from the 30’s.  The action is fast, the environment strange, the science loose.
  • Doc Savage: Man of Bronze – Lester Dent/Kenneth Robeson
  • Discworld – Wyrd Sisters, Thief of Time, The Fifth Elephant, Carpe Jugulum, Reaper Man,  Feet of Clay
  • Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C Clarke
  • The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven, Jerry Pornelle
  • Oath of Fealty – Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
  • Fahrenheit  451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
  • Sailor on the Seas of Fate – Michael Moorcock
  • When Worlds Collide – Edwin Balmer
  • Flight of the Dragonfly– Robert L. Forward
  • Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
  • The Integral Trees – Larry Niven
  • The Gods Themselves - Asimov


  • The Sector General Novels – Major Operation - James White
  •  Honor Harrington Novels: On Basilisk Station, The Honor of the Queen
  • The Vorkosigan Novels – Lois Bujold
  • The Darkover Novels – Stormqueen, The Forbidden Circle
  • The Compleat Enchanter – L Sprague De Camp
  • The Bolo Novels – Keith Laumer
  • The Retief Novels – Keith Laumer
  • The Stainless Steel Rat – Harry Harrison
  • Incarnations of Immortality- Piers Anthony
  • Titan, Wizard – John Varley
  • Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
  • Greg Bear – Eon
  • Mutineer’s Moon / Heirs of Empire – David Weber
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  • Stardust – Neil Gaiman

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