My Favorite Science Fiction (and Non-Fiction) Books
December 18, 2016
Note: I first published this post over at compellingsciencefiction.com.
Below is a list of my favorite books – the science fiction and non-fiction that has helped shape my thinking. I'm not claiming that these SF books are the best science fiction novels ever written, or that the non-fiction books are a compendium of must-understand knowledge. These are just a selection of the books that I have found the most deeply interesting over the course of the last couple decades. Most of them will be familiar to SF fans (it turns out good stuff gets attention). Most of the SF has been considered 'hard' science fiction at one time or another, but I'm not going to guarantee that you'll think they're all hard SF. Most of these books are available for delivery before Christmas (or instantly, if you get the Kindle versions), and if you order them through the links below, you'll be supporting Compelling Science Fiction. Thanks, and happy holidays! Have fun with the people you care about.
- A Deepness in the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. This novel is brilliant. The book is an epic tale of the interactions between three vastly different cultures — a sub-lightspeed human trading culture, a human culture that technologically enslaves minds, and a developing non-human species that is the focus of attention for both human factions. The novel is worth reading just for the way Vinge talks about software development hundreds of years in the future — about how millions of person-years of development must necessarily mean that development takes place at higher layers of abstraction. The plot is excellent, the writing is great, and the concepts are top-notch, making this my top recommendation. A Fire Upon the Deep is also set in this universe, and I would recommmend it as well (although not as strongly).
- The Foundation Series, by Isaac Asimov. Probably the best-known science fiction series on every possible axis, the books describe thousands of years of galactic civilization. The main premise is that a mathematician (Hari Seldon) predicts the fall of the galactic empire, and does everything he can to mitigate the damage to human civilization. The books are chock-full of grand fascinating concepts. There are aspects of the books that are certainly dated (Foundation was published in 1951), but they hold up better than anything else I've ever read. There are seven books in total in the series. The middle three books were written first (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), with two prequels (Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation) and two sequels (Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth) being written later. The trilogy and sequels are better than the prequels, but every book in the series is good. Reading these books broadened my worldview significantly.
- Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke. This book is a masterpiece of technical detail that is still entertaining to read. The premise is that an enormous spinning cylindrical spaceship shows up in the solar system, and a team of scientists are dispatched to learn more about it. If you ever wondered about fluid dynamics inside a closed-environment spinning cylinder, this book is for you. It's a book about pure exploration. Please note that I CANNOT recommend the sequels — I would read this book and then stop. The sequels focus more on dramatic interpersonal relationships than science, and are inferior books (in my opinion).
- Ringworld, by Larry Niven. This is another book full of interesting technical detail. It's also a fun adventure. Four explorers travel to a newly-discovered artificial ring enclosing a star — the ring contains millions of times the surface area of earth. The sequels to this one are also good.
- The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson. These books are hard hard science fiction. If you ever wanted to read enormous detail on terraforming a planet, this is your trilogy. The books even contain fictional conferences complete with fictional peer-reviewed journal articles. The books in this trilogy are probably the most realistic large-scale SF I've ever read.
- Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. This classic of non-fiction spawned two television series (over 30 years apart) of the same name. The book is a wide-spanning look at many aspects of science, from life on earth to the evolution of galaxies. If you like the book I'd recommend reading Sagan's other work — I think every single book he wrote was excellent.
- "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", by Richard P. Feynman. This book is light on science, considering who it's about, but I had to include it in this list anyway because it is so fantastic. Richard Feynman was an incredible character, and this set of stories (spanning a good portion of his life) paint a hilarious, heart-warming picture of the eccentric genius. I would have loved to meet the man.
- The World of Carbon, by Isaac Asimov. This may seem like a strange inclusion, especially considering that this book is apparently out of print. However, it is the most entertaining book on organic chemistry that I have ever read, and the information is still good, despite being published in 1962. The book contains some really fun tidbits of information about science history, as well. Did you know that formic acid was originally discovered in ants, which is how it got it's name (from the latin for ant, formica)? I didn't, until I read this book.
- A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. The explanations and analogies in this book are wonderfully clear. No real math derivations in this one, but as far as popular physics books go, it's top-shelf.
- The Algorithm Design Manual, by Steven Skiena. You may be thinking, "What!? Joe, this is a textbook, and it's not even about science!" and you would be right. However, this is my list, and I'll put what I want on here. Don't be fooled by it's textbook-like appearance — this is an incredible collection of the algorithms that have shaped our modern world, and I wouldn't be who I am today without it. Try opening the book to a random page and reading whatever algorithm you find. It's a rewarding experience.
I have many other favorites that didn't make it on to this list, by authors such as Lois McMaster Bujold, Greg Egan, Iain M. Banks, Robert Heinlein, John Scalzi, and more. If you like the books I've listed, then we probably have similar tastes, and I'd appreciate hearing about your favorite SF! Feel free to ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I read every email, but can't guarantee that I'll reply.
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