I saw a list the other day with this same title – “10 sci-fi books you should read before you die.” I thought, well, that’s a serious challenge, especially since I’m already 45. I could go at any time.
As I looked through the list, however, I noticed that several of the books were fantasy novels – not sci-fi.
“What?” I hear you cry. “Aren’t they the same thing?”
No, gentle reader, they most certainly are not.
Perhaps I’m a bit more stringent in my definition of science fiction than most people. Clearly, novels directed at people are going to have people like us in them, so they could be any genre. Fantasy, to my mind, involves people in fantastic situations. Maybe those situations are believable, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re utopian, maybe they’re dystopian. If it’s got elves and shit like that in it, it’s not sci-fi. Period. Magic? Probably not sci-fi.
George Orwell’s 1984 is quite often on lists such as these, as is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me, neither of these books are sci-fi. They’re fantasy – dystopian fantasy. Why?
No spaceships. No ray guns. No aliens.
To me, it’s not sci-fi unless it has at least one if not all three of those things. A book like William Gibson’s Neuromancer is an absolutely great book, but to me it’s on the fringe of sci-fi because it’s all just plain humans. Fantastic, modified, souped-up humans, but just plain humans nonetheless. To me, it’s a fantasy novel.
Here, in no particular order, is my list of 10 sci-fi books to read before you die, then, and they all contain at least two of those things.
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The whole series is fun, but the first book is the one that will really blow your mind. It contains so many sci-fi tropes that you’ll finally understand where most of them come from.
- Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. One of Bradbury’s best collections of short stories, and all on the theme of humans colonizing Mars. Utterly brilliant.
- Frank Herbert, Dune. I only read this just this year and I totally see why it’s a giant of sci-fi literature. Reviewed not too long ago in this very blog.
- Isaac Asimov, I, Robot. If you read my blog, you know how much I dig robots. This is a collection of short stories and a really fantastic book.
- Philip K. Dick, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. This book was the inspiration for two movies, both of which are pretty good, but only one of which features the trip to Mars.
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. Possibly the best really old sci-fi novel around.
- Alan Dean Foster, Lost and Found. A funny and poignant book I only recently discovered. It’s good enough to make my list, and one of the main characters is a talking dog.
- Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit, Will Travel. There’s a lot of Heinlein books involving the three sci-fi criteria, but this is the most accessible and most fun of all of them.
- Harry Harrison, The Jupiter Plague. Not the book the movie Soylent Green was based on, but still a great read.
- John Scalzi, Old Man’s War. Another book I only discovered just this year, and WOW! what a great book! I love his book Redshirts, too, but Old Man’s War is a more traditional sci-fi novel. You can go back through my blog to find my review of this book.
If your favorite sci-fi novel isn’t on this list, I either don’t consider it sci-fi, I haven’t read it, or if I have read it, it didn’t resonate with me – like Asimov’s Foundation. I’ve heard dozens of times what a great book this is, but when I read it, all I could think was … meh. I really just didn’t do it for me.