Science-Fiction: Start Reading from Scratch

On my ninth birthday my Aunt gave me this book as a gift. That was (and I'm giving away my age here) in 1975 and I've been an avid reader of science-fiction ever since. (And Fantasy and other genres as well, but science-fiction has always been my bread and butter)

Someone on our forums recently asked about what books to read if you are thinking about starting to read science-fiction. And it struck me, that might not be as obvious an answer to some people as it is to me.

So here is what I would consider a basic primer for building a foundation into the world of science-fiction enjoyment for the beginner. Or, if you've missed any of these, for the more seasoned veteran as well. This is NOT intended as a comprehensive list, but more as a guide to establishing a well-rounded narrative from which you can start to make your own decisions about what to read next.

DUNE by Frank Herbert
I always recommend DUNE first because it is extremely well written, engaging, and thought-provoking. The themes are timeless, the world expansive, and Herbert's love of ecology is as important now as it was when he wrote it. You can also choose to read just the first book, or dive deeper into the entire series. Personally I would recommend the entire run of original Frank Herbert books. Dune is an excellent place to start because it mixes so many genres together so well.

FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov
The next cornerstone series is by the great Isaac Asimov and is called FOUNDATION. It is a must read for any science-fiction fan and will open your eyes to big ideas, timeless history, and engaging thoughts about the future of humanity. Again, like DUNE, this is a series and any of the original books are worthy of your time.

Ray Bradbury
There are two authors in this post that I am going to treat in a special way, Ray Bradbury being one of them. They deserve this special treatment because they are incredibly talented writers, and because you can essentially pick up anything they've written and be the better for reading it. In addition, they are both prolific short-story writers and make for excellent "in-between" reads, for when you've finished a novel and want something short before you start another. At least that is how I read. Pick up a Bradbury, sit back, and let him tell you a story. You won't regret it.

Harlan Ellison
The other special author is Harlan Ellison. Another incredible short story author whose works push the boundaries and expand the mind of anyone that reads them. In addition, his Dangerous Vision anthologies are cornerstone works into many other authors and I can't recommend them enough. But also check out his classic collections, or just pick up The Essential Ellison and dive right in.

Robert Heinlein
You can't go wrong with choosing any Robert Heinlein novel, but I'd recommend starting with "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and then moving on to Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" and then maybe freak yourself out with "Stranger in a Strange Land". But there are so many great books in his collection, you can't go wrong with any of them.

RINGWORLD by Larry Niven
Larry Niven's Ringworld series is another cornerstone must-read for any science-fiction fan. Featuring one of the biggest ideas in all of science-fiction, Niven manages to paint a future that is massive and yet extremely personal at the same time.

HYPERION by Dan Simmons
This is another series that I often recommend to the beginning reader for various reasons. Mr. Simmons is a more modern author, but more than that this series expands upon what science-fiction is really about at its core and twists it in ways that are unusual and engaging. As with all of these suggestions, this series will open doors to other pathways and authors that you may want to investigate further.

TITAN by John Varley
Like Hyperion, John Varley's Titan trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon) are amazing works on their own, but they also provide a great beginning into additional works and other pathways that you may want to explore on your own.

Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
I can't recommend these books enough. Science-fiction isn't always stuffy and serious and the Stainless Steel Rat series is the perfect place to enjoy a rather lite adventure series with a sense of humor.

And that is a rather brief, but rather comprehensive, foundation to a life of enjoying science-fiction. There are literally hundreds of other authors, books, and series that could be on this list. The history of science-fiction is rife with hidden treasures and amazing tales, but you have to start somewhere. And these are great places to get started, without diving all the way to the Time Machine and HG Wells.

Enjoy and remember, reading is fundamental.


Feel free to make any other suggestions in the comments for those visiting.



54 comments:

  1. Alastair Reynolds - Revelation Space !!!

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    1. His short stories are also excellent. Galactic North is set in the Revelation Space universe and is well worth the read. And Terminal World, though I really wish there was a sequel.

      Great list, Rixx. I'd also recommend Elizabeth Bear's science fiction. Her fantasy is a bit maudlin and melodramatic for my tastes, but the sci-fi is often very deep, modern and poignant. She writes better short fiction, in my opinion, so her collection "Shoggoths in Bloom," is a good starting point.

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    2. I haven't read much from Alastair Reynolds, but I have read some of his short fiction. I've already added the Revelation Space books to my list - so thanks for that.

      Elizabeth Bear is good as well. Also Greg Bear for some of his novels, there are some of his that I did not enjoy.

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    3. If you like Heinlein, do yourself a treat and read any/everything by John Scalzi, but start with "Old Man's War" (a tribute to Starship Troopers)... also consider, S. M. Sterling;s 'The Emberverse series' and the 'The Lords of Creation' novels are, IMHO,quite simply amazing...

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    4. I've read Old Man's War, excellent, but I haven't read the Emberverse series, gonna put that on my reading list as well.

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    5. LOL gotcha all beat... Started reading The Grey Lensman series by E. E. "Doc" Smith wayyyy back in the summer of '68 when I stole my brothers copy of "First Lensman"... I was 8 at the time. That was the same summer my dad gave me his worn out ragged copies of The Hobbit and all three of LotR... still have em too.

      And Stephenson rocks... I've read all of his work but my favs are; Reamde, Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon... Cyrpto is an AMAZING ride... I am reading Anathem now...

      If you haven't read any Sterling I warn you, the Emberverse is (so far) a highly engrossing 10 novel series... sheesh. But while it is SciFi based it is a bit more Sword & Sorcery (realistic not fantasy) than pure SciFi.

      If you prefer pure dyed-in-the-wool SF, try his Lords of Creation series... "In the Courts of the Crimson Kings" is, for me, as if Edgar Rice Burroughs was alive today to re-imagine the tales of Barsoom... I read all of his John Carter of Mars tales over the winter of '68... after that I was hooked forever.

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    6. How about E.C Tubb - Dumarest saga..?

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    7. Rixx, the Emberverse is a must. Take the time and read them.

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  2. That list (and your age) is a enough like my own to be a bit freaky. Other than Hyperion, which I've yet to read, and Ellison (I'm not fond of short stories) I agree with everything on the list.

    I'd probably add Julian May's Pliocene/Intervention/Milieu series (three series, one story).

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  3. I was 10 in 1975 so I'm a year ahead of you obviously :)

    I've read all of these myself back in the day, except the Stainless Steel Rat stuff. All are excellent, "Ringworld" being the first "adult" SF read for me in 1976. But it took me to the age of 45 to finally read "Rendezvous with Rama" by Clarke, another great introductory novel indeed.

    For more contemporary, I suggest Neal Stephenson, as he hilariously entertains and educates at the same time. "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age" are the shorter works. Dive in to the 2800 page "Baroque Cycle" when wanting historical fiction, presented in the SF mode. "Anathem" is probably my favorite novel of all time.

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  4. Good reads all. Millennials might find some of Rixx's selections a bit stodgy. Asimov, Heinlein, Nivin and Harrison are wonderful writers but their works are steeped in a 1930s to 1960s style and frame of reference that younger readers might have trouble getting past.

    Dune, on the other hand, is timeless. Say what you will about Herbert, Dune is a classic for the ages.

    My own contributions:

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
    Neuromancer by William Gibson
    Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazney
    Downbelow Station by CJ Cherryh
    The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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    1. All great suggestions. Obviously my list was only intended as a primer and I did try to pick middle age authors, without going too far back or current. But you can't go wrong with Zelazney, or Cherryh, or Gibson or your other suggestions. All excellent.

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    2. Neuromancer +1! How could I forget this masterpiece?!

      Also, I love that Hyperion is on your list, the cantos (Hyperion to the Rise of Endymion) is by far the best SciFi I've ever read.

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  5. You shouldn't limit your list to the 20th century, one of the best author's of science fiction still relevant to this day is Jules Verne. 20 Thousand Leagues under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth. A substantial portion of the work he produced survives the test of time and the fantasy of his vision is the reality of most of the 20th century technologies.

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    1. Like I said to Mord, I purposefully selected writers from the middle-age of sf, not from the early days or more recent ones. But certainly the masters are also still vital and important for a larger scope, even some of the early pulp science-fiction writers are still worth reading even today.

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  6. This is a great list.

    My first sci fi was Heinlein's "Have Space Suit Will Travel" at age 8 or so. My favorite of his, however, is "Starship Troopers" - a fantastic novel that was made into a terrible movie. Also for those without a lot of religious sensitivity, "Job: A Comedy of Justice" is fun.

    I'll also second the cyberpunk suggestions of Mord & James on Snow Crash, Diamond Age and Neuromancer. The Baroque Cycle James mentions is amazing but is not your typical sci fi. I'll also second some of the very early stuff - Journey to the Center of the Earth was also one of my early favorites.

    Asimov's "Foundation" should be required reading. Go read it now.

    I also recommend a couple of the Old Masters of sci fi with a message: A.E. Van Vogt (The Weapon Shops of Isher) and Theodore Sturgeon (Microcosmic God).

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    1. Oh man, Sturgeon is one of my personal all-time favorites, that man could write. Van is also an excellent suggestion.

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  7. Sheesh I must be old. Am I the only one to have immediately thought "Childhood's End is A.C. Clarke, not Heinlein?"

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    1. No, I did too. I actually glanced over the list and immediately thought, "where is my favorite A.C. Clark's book?"

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    2. Fixed that, thanks for pointing it out. That's what I get for not editing the post this morning.

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  8. +1 vote to the foundation books (especially the original trilogy), anything by Jules Verne, Dune, Snow Crash and The Diamond age and I'd like to offer Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (I have to recommend that as I'm british, it's an unwritten law) and a possibly controversial choice in Enders Game (In fact both the ender series and the shadow series in this universe) by Orson Scott Card. If you can separate his politics from his writing.

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  9. How about Ben Bova? Pretty awesome books, Jupiter and the Mars trilogy are my favorites.

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    1. Ben Bova is an excellent addition!! he makes me also think of James Blish, another less well known "hard" science-fiction author.

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  10. Peter Hamilton has the best two hard science fiction series written in the last decade (or two?). "Reality Dysfunction" and the "Void" series.

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  11. More suggestions

    Red/Green/Blue Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson

    Eon - Greg Bear

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    1. Oh Kim Stanley Robinson, excellent suggestion. I had mentioned Greg Bear in a comment above, but also an excellent author.

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  12. A lot of Harry Harrison is excellent. Make Room, Make Room is Solvent Green's origin.

    I loved Robert Heinlein, right up until A Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

    I would toss in Philip K Dick. I am surprised someone has not made Man in the High Castle into a mini series.

    For something more recent, Perdido Street Station by China Miéville - one the best pieces of steampunk I have ever read.

    Dune remains a classic.

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    1. "Man in the High Castle" is indeed in production at HBO

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  13. For me the feeder was originally comics, Starlog and 2000AD. They had some awesome short stories. A crystalline alien species vulnerable to sound, and the human diplomat sneezing on first contact. Another was a time traveler who was saying there was no difference after time hopping, totally unaware his frame of reference changed with each shift. The end of the universe where entropy ruled, energy was all important, and chases were extremely slow...

    Perhaps a function of age then, I found some of the hard sci-fi authors wrote brilliant science, but poor characterization such that it felt hard to relate. E.E doc Smith lensmen, D'alembert and Tedric series are arguably golden age, but for me were much easier to read. Admittedly they're probably considered sci-fi lite these days. Julian May and the Many Coloured Land likewise, but still very cool. Have to put in a good word for Lois McMaster Bujold and the Vor series.

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  14. No one is bringing up one of the all time great classics. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Over 100 years later that story stands the test of time. It's the foundational underpinning of all alt-history scifi.

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  15. No mention of Asimov is complete without mention of robotics and the 3 laws :)
    The two most influential writers in my youth besides Asimov were A.E. van Vogt and Jack Vance because my dad's bookshelf was fileld with those.

    When you mention short stories I had to think of Frederick Pohl but not 100% sure.

    My favorite Heinlein story is 'Time enough for love', guess I am fascinated with immortality.
    Larry Niven!
    Did you read Ilium/Olympos by Dan Simmons?
    I spent years looking for secondhand copies of John Varley's Titan Trilogy.

    Recently I have been all into Alastair Reynolds, David Brin, Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton.

    Special mentions:
    Ender by Orson Scott Card
    A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer
    Pliocene Saga/Galactiv Milieu by Julian May
    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson/Neuromancer by William Gibson

    I like stories from the 20's to 40's as well for the insight they offer into culture, thinking of the time and how they influenced later SF writers.

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  16. i still remember reading Dune for the first time (in the 80's).....
    almost all classics mentioned but now peter watts and baciagaluppi are the best current hard S-F autors for me.
    (also read something by LEM like Solaris, Eden, Invincible, Fiasco)

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  17. Such a good topic. Good list though, I'd second whoever mentioned the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, and anything Alastair Reynolds wrote (Rixx - I'm jealous that you get to start the Revelation Space series from scratch, you'll love it). I kind of measure anything against Iain M Banks these days, and anything by his friend Ken Macleod is generally excellent (start with Learning the World - a great take on first contact). If you do Neal Stephenson then don't forget Anathem, in fact read everything he ever wrote.

    For easy/light/pulp but entertaining reading (like word snacking) try Engines of God by Jack McDevitt or "Legacy of Heorot" a story that Niven wrote with Pournelle and Barnes.

    For classic mind blowers try Helliconia by Brian Aldiss, or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

    Never forget JG Ballard! I recently re-read The Drowned World and High Rise. If you can read High Rise without trying to draw analogies to Null/Low/Hi sec space then congratulations (Mord - I'm looking at you)!

    I could go on forever. I think I might spend the day reading. Kudos Rixx.

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    1. Same here. I figured I'd mention a few essentials and then let everyone else fill in the blanks, it is much more fun that way.

      If I enjoy an author I tend to devour everything they've written, at least as much as possible. There are many great suggestions in these comments. If I had taken the time to mention ALL the authors I enjoy, or consider important to science fiction, I'd probably still be writing the post.

      I do believe I've read everything Nive, Pournelle, Pohl, Dick, Haldeman, Adliss, Ballard, Banks, have written. But I have not read Engines of God, so I'm adding that to my list.

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  18. Glad to see Hyperion up there, it's one of my favourites.

    I would also recommend Beetle in the Anthill by the Strugatski brothers and Flowers for Algernon, by Keyes.

    PS: Red Star, Winter Orbit, by Gibson and Sterling.
    One of the best sci-fi short stories, in my opinion.

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    1. OMG.... Flowers... what an AMAZING story... actually, it was a re-read of Flowers for Algernon that prompted my first foray into blogging. I have always wanted to write, just never devoted the time to it... so I took a shot at a few topics and finally met my muse in a SF short I called "Anti-Kora"...

      It wrote itself and I must say I was well pleased with it. I started a blog and posted it and... well, that blog is still out there, but I never really got into it after that first story. Now the ubiquitous 'They' say you should 'write about what you know about'... and it was only after I joined EvE that I realized I had SciFi stories to tell! then I started my EvE blog and I have found I enjoy writing as much if not more than I had hoped.

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  19. my first science fiction book was heinleins a farmer in the sky. i was hooked. my all time favorites were the dune series...i liked herberts perspective on life. time enough for love was the favorite for me...heinlein was the best writer for me. never liked bradbury too much. i read 451. i always liked ringworld series...the halo game reminded me of ringworld in someways. i just recently read enders game. i enjoyed that. i was 20 in '75.

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  20. I'm a big fan of the three classic power armor books...
    Starship Troopers by Heinlein
    Armor by John Steakley
    Forever War by Joe Haldeman

    Forever War is supposedly in development as a movie. It'll be...interesting.

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    1. I wouldn't hold out hope for the Forever War, it has been in development for a long time, and the new Tom Cruise movie borrows man of the main themes heavily from it.

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  21. Some nice books mentioned her.
    I'd also suggest reading "Das Boot", even if you have seen the movie. It's no science-fiction ofc but it's almost like flying around in a space-ship somehow.

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    1. Funny I've always consider submarines analogous to space ships too.

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    2. Well... I assume we all have heard that the physics of EvE are far more submarine than space based. Our ships don't 'coast' and we make sweeping 'turns' and don't have to use thrusters to decelerate... we can't orbit planets or moons, unless you pretend that a POS or Station is in 'orbit'... we fly (warp) THROUGH planets and moons and stations etc. etc.... which I find highly immersion breaking...but hey... its a game after all right?

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    3. On the subject of "Das Boot", have you read Passage at Arms, by Glen Cook? It's basically "Das Boot in space". Takes the submarines as spaceships analogy a step or three further, and is basically just excellent.

      Also this list made my day. Thank you Rixx for getting the ball rolling here!

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  22. Vernor Vinge has written awesome SciFi.
    Hugo Award winner and Nebula Award nominee "A Deepness in the Sky" stands out but I also enjoyed "A Fire upon the Deep" alot.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vernor_Vinge

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  23. Ian Mc Donald "Chaga", Charles Stross "Accelernado"

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  24. Mmmm my latest addition The Expanse Series by JSA Corey: Leviathan s wake, caliban s war, abaddon s gate. A liittle Holywoodeske but quite entertaining

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  25. You guys also need to read:

    Honor Harrington series by David Weber
    CoDominium Future History Bundle by Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven & S. M. Stirling
    Hell's series by David Weber and friends
    Liaden Unibus I by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
    The Eric John Stark Saga by Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett

    Just to say a few.

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  26. For the Foundation series, should I start w/ the eponymous book? or should I read the prequels first?

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    1. Read prequels first. The Foundation series a great choice.

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    2. Will do. thanks for the reply!

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  27. I read the Dune books, the Foundation books, and just about all of Heinlein as a young kid -- I'm five years younger than you are, so we were doing this at nearly the same time. Many of the stories other people here are recommending are from later on, and are totally worth it, but they won't capture the essence of what we found so interesting back then. Velt: Definitely read the Foundation stories in order of publication. Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation were the first three. The rest are best read after that. The reason is that the concept and context won't ever be presented as clearly as it was in the initial stories.

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    1. I might be one of the oldest in here (1964) and there are great stuff from before, already commented here and others from later one. We all have been very lucky as the newer SF generation of writes took the old stories as a base for their own experiences and then moved to new levels. And to make things better for us even the older writers are still publishing new stories and each of them are worth to read. I'm a sucker for SF books and I read all from all authors cause they all deserve support to keep the great stories coming and the dreams flowing.

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  28. Gene Wolfe. His Sun Cycle books, beginning with Shadow of the Torturer. Or the short novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus for a taste before you dump into trilogies. He is the greatest Science Fiction writer alive today.

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