This was a virtually impossible task. Put together a list of 50 must-read science fiction books and don’t make anyone angry. Science fiction is the most discussed and argued over genre in literature but it actually goes way beyond books and into film, TV, video games and even toys.

Here are the criteria I used. One book per author, so that was hard on the big three of science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who each have multiple classic titles to their name. Attempt to show as many sub-genres of science fiction and plot themes as possible. Include early stories that influenced the genre as a whole and launched popular themes, even if those books appear a bit dated today.

I wanted to show the unbelievable breadth of this galactic-sized genre and, of course, I failed because this is just the tip of the spaceberg – there are probably 500 essential science fiction books, not 50.

The War of the Worlds is on the list, a famous example of invasion literature, but I could easily have used The Time Machine. For Ray Bradbury, there’s The Illustrated Man but I could have used Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles.

Many people include alternate reality novels as science fiction but I didn’t feel comfortable having them on the list as there’s not much science in that sort of fiction.

The list includes hard and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction features great attention to detail in the quantitative sciences, while soft riffs on the social sciences. You’ll also find space opera with its heroes and heroines on distant planets; cyberpunk, loved by nerds in goggles everywhere; time travel – a simple concept that’s been around since Mark Twain’s day; military science fiction where soldiers drive the narrative; dystopian fiction where society has usually gone awry; superhuman stories where humans develop new or greater skills (and that usually means trouble) and the always cheery apocalyptic fiction sub-genre (where we could be battling to avoid the end of Earth or struggling to survive after a catastrophe). There are many recurrent powerful themes such as machine and human relationships, aliens and human relationships, biological and ecological matters, and paranormal activities.

You are spoiled for choice – this list includes novellas, short story collections, a graphic novel and books from published 1864 to 2011.

For further reading recommendations, brush up on the Hugo and Nebula Awards - the winners and the shortlisted titles - and also the books published by Tor (who really know this genre, and fantasy, inside out), as well as Locus Magazine and the science fiction tags on LibraryThing.com.


50 Essential Science Fiction Books

A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864) A Journey to the Center of the Earth

by Jules Verne (1864)

Famous adventure tale that practically launched the genre in 1864.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898) The War of the Worlds

by H.G. Wells (1898)

The Martians come to England. A famous example of invasion literature from 1898.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Set in 2540, this novel imagines a radically different future. So good, it’s taught in schools.

When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933) When Worlds Collide

by Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933)

Earth must be evacuated because another planet is on a collision course.

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon (1935) Odd John

by Olaf Stapledon (1935)

A superhuman novel where supernormal abilities lead to conflict.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell (1949)

Social sci-fi from the era of Soviet growth where a nasty political system defines the plot.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949) Earth Abides

by George R. Stewart (1949)

Written shortly after Hiroshima, this post-apocalyptic novel imagines the rebuilding process.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951) Foundation

by Isaac Asimov (1951)

The original novel in a pioneering series. An immense plot that I cannot sum up in a sentence.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951) The Illustrated Man

by Ray Bradbury (1951)

18 masterful and highly imaginative short stories from one of the genre's masters.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) The Demolished Man

by Alfred Bester (1953)

First Hugo winner. A science fiction detective novel featuring telepathy.

Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak (1953) Ring Around the Sun

by Clifford D. Simak (1953)

Clever invasion novel from the 1950s where aliens introduce devices to disrupt Earth's economy.

Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement (1954) Mission of Gravity

by Hal Clement (1954)

A world-building novel on a planet with variable surface gravity. Insect-like locals, human explorers.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955) The Long Tomorrow

by Leigh Brackett (1955)

Following a nuclear war, religious sects create an anti-technology society.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids

by John Wyndham (1955)

Set way in the future in a fundamentalist society. Telepathy makes people different.

The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass by John Christopher (1956) The Death of Grass or No Blade of Grass

by John Christopher (1956)

A virus kills off all strains of grasses & causes a famine. England descends into anarchy.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (1959) Starship Troopers

by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Fine example of military science fiction from the late 1950s. A war against bugs.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959) The Sirens of Titan

by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

Douglas Adams described it as a “tour de force” – a novel set amid a Martian invasion of Earth.

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank (1959) Alas, Babylon

by Pat Frank (1959)

Frank imagines the effects of nuclear war on a small town in Florida.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller (1960) A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller (1960)

Post-apocalyptic science fiction where monks are trying to preserve vital books and humanity.

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon (1960) Venus Plus X

by Theodore Sturgeon (1960)

20th century Charlie Johns wakes in a future filled with overpopulation, bigotry and no gender.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (1961) Solaris

by Stanislaw Lem (1961)

Humans study a planet while the planet studies them. A novel about miscommunication.

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962) The Drowned World

by J.G. Ballard (1962)

The ice-caps melt and the world floods. Set in 2145, the protagonist has adapted rather well.

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1962) Hothouse

by Brian Aldiss (1962)

An ecological-themed novel set in the far future with fantasy elements.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962) A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

Children’s fiction, with fantasy elements, where a government scientist goes missing.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965) Dune

by Frank Herbert (1965)

This novel has sold 12 million copies so can’t be bad. Spice before the Spice Girls.

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966) Make Room! Make Room!

by Harry Harrison (1966)

Set in 1999, a novel about over-population. Basis for the movie, Soylent Green.

Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967) Logan's Run

by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967)

Age-themed science fiction. Everyone is killed off at 21 but there are “runners.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

by Philip K. Dick (1968)

A bounty hunter tracks down escaped androids in a post-apocalyptic future.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

Le Guin is prolific and a must-read for everyone. This book details an imagined universe.

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock (1969) Behold the Man

by Michael Moorcock (1969)

A time travel story where a man goes from 1970 back to AD 28 to meet Jesus.

Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970) Ringworld

by Larry Niven (1970)

From the golden era of the early 1970s. Set in 2850 in a radically different universe.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1972) Rendezvous with Rama

by Arthur C. Clarke (1972)

A classic set in the 22nd century, an alien starship enters the solar system.

Roadside Picnic / Tale of the Troika by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972) Roadside Picnic / Tale of the Troika

by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic is a classic alien-encounter story from Russia’s most important sci-fi writers.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975) The Female Man

by Joanna Russ (1975)

A novel following the lives of four women in parallel worlds. Feminist sci-fi.

Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (1976) Man Plus

by Frederik Pohl (1976)

Cyborg (where man & machine combine) science fiction as humans attempt to colonize Mars.

The Stand by Stephen King (1978) The Stand

by Stephen King (1978)

Apocalyptic novel where a virus kills off most people and it is nightmarish for survivors.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

by Douglas Adams (1979)

A radio series. Adams introduced a huge and much-needed dose of humor into the genre.

Nor Crystal Tears by Alan Dean Foster (1982) Nor Crystal Tears

by Alan Dean Foster (1982)

Imagines the Humanx Commonwealth where humans exist alongside aliens.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1985) Ender's Game

by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Violent futuristic sci-fi where the Earth is threatened by an ant-like species.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (1987) Consider Phlebas

by Iain M. Banks (1987)

Pure space opera. First in the Culture series, this novel features a sprawling space war between species.

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988) Falling Free

by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)

Quaddies are genetically modified humans used as slaves. They become obsolete and face a grim end.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989) Hyperion

by Dan Simmons (1989)

A complicated story-within-a-story novel with humanity spread across the galaxy.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993) Red Mars

by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)

First in a readable trilogy imagining the colonization of Mars.

Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo (1996) Ribofunk

by Paul Di Filippo (1996)

Biopunk short story collection – a spin-off from cyberpunk featuring biotechnology.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999) Cryptonomicon

by Neal Stephenson (1999)

Historical science fiction adored by Geeks for its technology themes.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005) Uglies

by Scott Westerfeld (2005)

A novel based on cosmetic surgery for teenagers. Modern science fiction on a modern issue.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi (2005) Old Man's War

by John Scalzi (2005)

Scalzi's debut saw humans fighting aliens Heinlein-style except old people pull the trigger.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2007) Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow (2007)

Modern cyberpunk in post-9/11 era. Teenage hackers battle Homeland Security over civil rights.

Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware (2008) Acme Novelty Library #19

by Chris Ware (2008)

Post-modern plot in a graphic novel. A sci-fi writer & his girlfriend are the last humans on Earth.

Embassytown by China Miéville (2011) Embassytown

by China Miéville (2011)

Set in a small town on a distant planet, this 2011 novel depicts interaction between aliens & humans.

Let the indignant outcry of our fellow nerds commence - what did we miss?