I love sci-fi (also known more broadly and accurately as “speculative fiction”)! I’m often asked for recommendations, as it’s not the most well-known genre (although it’s definitely grown in popularity over the past few decades). So in lieu of continuing to write out my list of favorite works via text or on cocktail napkins or blank receipt paper, I’m finally codifying it here.
NOTE: I’ve provided both Amazon and Bookshop.org links – I recommend supporting local (such as through Bookshop), but I know the convenience, price, and Kindle-availability that Amazon offers is sometimes too good to pass up.
DISCLAIMER: I do get (minuscule) credit for any of the Amazon purchases, so thanks in advance if any of you buy that way.
Stephenson is my favorite author in general, let alone for sci-fi. His works span genres, and his speculative fiction explores nearly all of the major topics that the sciences may touch in the future. As with any author, he’s not going to be for everyone, but I personally appreciate his detailed, well-researched ideas, complex plots, and witty character moments.
- Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (1992) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Touches upon linguistics, NLP1, and virtual reality. Predicted, or inspired, or influenced, or invented things like the terms “metaverse” and “avatar”, and the concept behind Google Earth.
- Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- One of my favorite books of all time, this book covers the impacts of nanotechnology on society, methods of education, and explores/critiques cultural relativism.
- Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon (1999) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A historical & speculative page-turner delving into currency and economics, but most of all cryptography. It takes place half during WWII and half “current day”. It’s seen as an early influence on cryptocurrencies.
- Stephenson, Neal. The Baroque Cycle, consisting of volume I: Quicksilver (2003), volume II: The Confusion (2004), and volume III: The System of the World (2004) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A massive work of historical spec-fic (largely quite accurate but with some flavorful fantastic elements layered in), this 3-volume, 3000+ page, exquisitely researched epic delves into the scientific revolution and origins of modern economics, centered around the Newton-Leibniz “feud”. Truly transports you to the late 17th and early 18th centuries, spanning the globe but with a focus on Europe and London in particular.
- Stephenson, Neal. Anathem (2008) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A primer on philosophy in multiverse sci-fi form. Calls to mind Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Liebowitz, but then shoots into the stratosphere of ideas. One of Stephenson’s best endings to a book, and one of my favorite books of all time.
- Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves (2015) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- One of the more realistic and devastating end of the world stories out there. Without spoiling much, it also touches upon orbital mechanics and a potential future of human evolution.
- Stephenson, Neal. ReamDe (2011) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A present-day action-adventure exploring MMORPGs2 and quite unlike most of Stephenson’s other works. Entertaining, but not my favorite. I only list it here since it’s a direct prequel to…
- Stephenson, Neal. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (2019) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Fall explores ancient archetypes and speculates about the origins of the universe as Simulation. It also explains/concludes a fantastical thread that Stephenson has weaved from the Baroque Cycle through Cryptonomicon and ReamDe. Fans are polarized about Fall, but I’m firmly in the love it camp.
Iain M. Banks
Banks is a visionary Scottish author who is best known for his “Culture” series of books, which explore far flung narratives in a far-future, post-singularity, post-scarcity society living amongst myriad other life forms in the galaxy. Banks’ developed his universe from first principles of how society could be better (for more detail see footnotes!3456) All of this gives his novels a lot of heart and humor on top of a gritty, chaotic realism.
Another thing Banks’ Culture books do superlatively is exploring how completely different species, societies, and psychologies might interact with each other – something that many other sci-fi authors mostly gloss over, leading to overly human-centric characterizations.
In any case, please enjoy the expansive space operas below in any order – each is technically standalone, just within the same universe/galaxy, with only a handful of recurring characters and events.
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 1: Consider Phlebas (1987) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- This first Culture novel is frankly not the best – it’s clear this is an earlier work. In fact, this one frustrated me to no ends the first time I read it. But it does indeed set the stage for the rest of the Culture books, and upon re-readings I have appreciated it more.
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 2: The Player of Games (1988) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- What meaning can games have that actually impact society?
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 3: Use of Weapons (1990) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Technically the first Culture story Banks conceived despite being the 3rd published, it’s still regarded as one of the best. It examines what it means to win at any cost, the human costs of violence, and what it means to make war in the interest of peace from a place of strength.
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 4: Excession (1996) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- What does it mean to encounter a force utterly beyond society’s reckoning?
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 5: Inversions (1998) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A very different style of novel in the Culture universe, from the perspective of a less-developed and unaware society.
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 6: Look to Windward (2000) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- What do revenge and punishment really mean?
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 7: Matter (2008) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- My favorite of the Culture books, one of my favorite sci-fi books ever, and with one of the most satisfying endings to any book I’ve ever read. Great characters, action, space opera adventure and high-technobabble awesomeness.
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 8: Surface Detail (2010) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Should afterlives exist? Do they serve a purpose?
- Banks, Iain M. The Culture, book 9: The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Politics and intrigue as a society prepares to move on to the next stage.
- Banks, Iain M. Against a Dark Background (2009) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Not a Culture universe novel, but solid sci-fi – kind of a heist/caper adventure mystery.
The following books are the remainder of my favorite science and speculative fiction. The order is largely arbitrary, although I do find myself re-reading the books toward the top of the list more often than those at the bottom…Enjoy! :D
- Varley, John. The Gaea Trilogy, consisting of Titan (1979) [Amazon|Bookshop], Wizard (1980) [Amazon|Bookshop], and Demon (1984) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- This is an amazing “fantasy” series that is actually a well-developed hard sci-fi under the hood. It also has one of my favorite protagonists in any series that always made me wish a miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver had been made.
- Simmons, Dan. The Hyperion Cantos, consisting of Hyperion (1989)[Amazon|Bookshop] and The Fall of Hyperion (1989) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- The first book is a literary masterpiece in a Canterbury Tales format that builds the universe, and the sequel tackles the impact of events in the first with a more conventional story format, but no less impactful. There are other books in the series that are also worth a read.
- Bear, Greg. The Forge of God (1987) [Amazon|Bookshop] and Anvil of Stars (1992) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- The first book in the series is the best hard-SF end-of-the-world book I’ve read (that really deserves a movie!), and the sequel is a fantastic high-technology revenge adventure.
- Baxter, Stephen and Arthur C Clarke. The Light of Other Days (2001) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Explores an illuminating future without privacy, and the implications for the past….
- Niven, Larry. The Ringworld Series, consisting of: Ringworld (1970) [Amazon|Bookshop], The Ringworld Engineers (1979) [Amazon|Bookshop], The Ringworld Throne (1996) [Amazon|Bookshop], and Ringworld’s Children (2007) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Classic hard-sci-fi with quirky characters and an infinite sense of exploration.
- Stross, Charles. Accelerando (2006) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A sometimes funny, often thought-provoking, unique take on the Singularity7. It’s actually the 3rd in a series that explore different takes – the others are good too.
- Herbert, Frank. Dune (1965) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Truly the granddaddy of all epic sci-fi, and worth a read for everyone. The many books that follow in the series are also interesting, although in my opinion none compare to the first.
- Baxter, Stephen. Manifold: Time (2000) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- A cool take on the origin and purpose of the universe. Part of a trilogy, but this is the best of the three – the next two are odd (interesting, just not my favs).
- Brin, David. Existence (2012) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Summarizes a lot of ideas in modern sci-fi in a fairly interesting story format.
- Baxter, Stephen and Terry Pratchett. The Long Earth quintet, starting with The Long Earth (2012) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- An interesting take on parallel universes that are just a step away, and how that discovery impacts all of humanity.
- Steakley, John. Armor (1984) [Amazon|Bookshop].
- Usually mentioned as similar to Ender’s Game in terms of excellent military sci-fi, to the point of being suggested reading at military academies.
- NeuroLinguistic Programming [Wikipedia]. ↩︎
- Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games [Wikipedia]. ↩︎
- An anecdote on Iain M Banks from his friend and fellow author Ken MacLeod in an interview after Banks’ death. ↩︎
- An anecdote on Iain M Banks from his friend and fellow author Ken MacLeod in a blog post. ↩︎
- Per Banks himself, in an essay originally posted in a newsgroup in 1994, reposted by an early fan. ↩︎
- Per Banks himself during an interview in 2010, published with Strange Horizons in 2014 ↩︎
- There are lots of other fascinating takes on the Singularity (which is basically the birth or waking up of a true AI and what that would mean), including some short stories – my favorite being The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams, which can be read online on the Wayback Machine. ↩︎