The top fifteen best science fiction novels, and why they are the best:
I brainstormed my favorite science fiction novels, then sorted them into order of which I love most. So… here are my top science fiction novels and why I love them.
1. Kim Stanley Robinson’s, Mars Trilogy. Why: magnificence, literary depth, an array of Shakespeare-scale characters, brilliance of construction, complexity and dazzling quality of ideas. Red Mars is first.
2. Charlie Stross, Accelerando. Why: Dazzling and funny ideas, linguistic brilliance and elegance, wit, visionary and prophetic power, evocative power of social processes.
3. Greg Egan, Schild’s Ladder. Why: Dazzling and magnificent evocation of physics in the plot, existential refinement and sublimity of theme, visionary power, brilliant visual evocations.
4. Joe Haldeman, ‘The Long Habit of Living’ and his three most recent novels especially ‘Camoflage’. Why: complete and effortless mastery of construction and all aspects of workmanship from skilful synethesis of character, theme, plot, dialog, and ideas to writing and editing.
5. Schizmatrix and stories, Bruce Sterling. Why: Sterling’s book has the exact same set of excellences that Stross’ book does, except that it occurred fifteen years earlier.
6. Karl Schroeder, Permanence, and all his novels. Why: all, really, are extraordinary in plot, theme, and brilliance of ideas. Skilful and well blended exposition of idea, theme and plot is Schroeder’s great strength. His ideas are truly uncanny. But I have seldom cared less about a novels’ characters, hence he is number six.
7. Allan Steele, Coyote. Why: sublimity of sentiment, mythic resonance, vigor of storytelling, plot ‘miniatures’. Plot is fine but Steele’s real strengh in the Coyote books is as a myth-maker, situated distinctly in the American revolutionary mythos. I don’t care for his characters, though the set piece in book one of Coyote when the ship is en route to the colony is remarkable and hypnotic.
8. Isaac Asimov, Foundation. Pebble in the sky. Daneel sequence of mystery stories. Why: Asimov’s great strength is in marvellous and contrived plots: his storytelling is pursuasive, impersonal, and flat out entertaining. Social and civic morality is his constant concern in these books, and Asimov’s single great theme.
9. Stephen Baxter, Exultant, Transcendent, etc – Destiny’s Children trilogy he calls it. Why: these books seem to capture the spirit and soul of fin de siecle post-postmodern Britain. Endless war, endless empire and endless personal sacrifice characterise the entire universe, into which his extensive gifts of narrative, character, science writing, speculative brilliance and world-building come to a climax. This trilogy really represents to me the most suberb climax of Baxter’s work in the Xeelee Sequence, and an important representation of the human species being acted on by evolution over enormous periods of time (a major concern of Baxter it appears).
10. Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space. Why: gothic space opera’s flagship work, this book introduces all Reynolds basic themes in the personalization of a great evil rotting sentient space ship. This is also Reynold’s funniest novel of several hilariously bloodthirsty books. Reynolds is definitely a great humorist in gothic drag.
11. Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson, Variable Star. Why: Robinson updates Heinlein’s libertarian themes to the nineties, throws in refined characterisation and inspired plotting. Not just a homage to Heinlein, Spider Robinson in this book out-Heinleins Heinlein.
12. Dune, Frank Herbert. Why: worldbuilding alone. I don’t think Herbert is much of a character creator, nor do I find his work thematically distinct. If you compare it to Asimov’s work it goes begging. The humanity test of the gom jabar is the only remarkable theme in the novel for me.
13. Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide and the Dinosaur book and stories. Why: Swanwick himself. He is strange, very strange. His characters seem flat like puppets. His novel length plots are more like dreams than narrative sequences. Yet the work is so exotically written, daring in its sexuality and non-conventional science fiction material, and full of strange perspectives. In a way Swanwick himself is the entertainment in Swanwick’s books.
14. Robert Reed, Sister Alice and the Marrow sequence of books. Why: they show incredible posthuman ideas on an unthinkable cosmic perspective. Science and society are submerged here in personal dramas on a cosmic scale. He is very much in the mode of James Blish in his Cities In Flight sequence of novels – except that he is forty years later along and I find his work cool.
15. Book sequence about biotechnology starting with ‘The Cassandra Complex’ and continuing through ‘Engines of Emortality’ by Stableford, I can’t recall his first name right now (it’s Brian), but I remember his elegant books very well. Asimovian detective stories set in a Wildean social millieu, they depict the effects of the biological transitions into a trans- and post-human so beautifully and movingly, I almost can’t believe it. The crown of the sequence is the short story “A History of Death”, which I sometimes think about, remembering that in order to achieve a genuine posthumanity all that is needed is the extra perspective a few extra hundred years; by the last book the humans in the story have lived longer than us to the extent that they are genuinely alien. These are contemplative books, beautiful artifacts from an alien imagination.
Look at what makes number one distinct from the others: greatness of character primarily… I love and care about the characters in Robinson. Add to this the moral and intellectual magnificence of the Mars trilogy and you have a number one book.
Numbers two and three, Stross and Egan, have the ability to dazzle which is so important to SF, common to all fifteen of these writers, and most developed in them.
Fourth, Haldeman’s best work presents a concentrated and stable combination of crafted books. His books impress instead of dazzle. By contrast, Robinson simultaneously impresses and dazzles with the Mars trilogy.
Each of these writer after has their key excellences. Asimov has a gift for plots built like swiss watches. Schroeder and Herbert have a gift for worldbuilding. Steele has an unusual gift for a kind of folksy myth-making. Reynolds’ unique gift is the incredible geeky cool and sublime irony of his serious black humor. Swanwick’s gift seems to be his own rather odd person. Baxter’s many great abilities seem to unite around a central gift of the tragic representation of a rather bleak and existential socio-evolutionary worldview.
What makes Kim Stanley Robinson’s characters so strong is essentially the use of perspectivism. By integrating multiple consciousnesses as points of view in his novel, he ends up collapsing most of the major human themes inwards to a sort of quantum representation of the theme of the Mars trilogy.
The theme of the Mars Trilogy is that “one comes to know oneself only through and in the physical world”. Key to Robinson’s Mars trilogy I think is the distinction in his novelette Green Mars between the world (as a culture-process) and the earth (as the nature which contains all culture process). His essential genius is to depict the world, the culture-process, of a new earth (the terraformed Mars), thereby revealing truths which could not otherwise be disclosed. Robinson does not descend to scientific reductionism, but represents the limits of human subjectivity in relation to nature, science, politics, economics and culture. It is hard not to overpraise the care that is taken drawing this theme out through multiple perspectives. It would take many more words to describe the Mars Trilogy’s shortcomings and other strengths, so it is best to end here.
But I want to ask: what is it to you? What are your favorites and why? I define a favorite as a book you would be willing and ready to re-read. The use of perspectivism is really key to why I chose my number one. But without dazzling ideas, morality-driven plots, and a reassuring sense of craftsmanship I doubt the Mars Trilogy would be my favorite.
Honestly, many of these books I love just because of their razzle-dazzle. I would read them again as I am now, but in a few decades or so I doubt they would mean as much as they do now. I suspect numbers one and fifteen will remain my favorites, the first because it has become an emblem for good SF for me at my present time in life, and the last because it depicts an ageing society so beautifully, no doubt I have missed most of its meanings in my youthful haste to read ‘Engines of Immortality’ and its sequels.
Razzle-dazzle in science fiction matters. Entertainment matters. If I am pursuaded that a novelist wishes only to entertain me, only then do I begin to look for the deeper lessons in the novel, which, in my satiation with mere entertainment, become more attractive after I reach the end of the book than during the reading itself; and so stubbornly I return to the site when I felt something deeper than entertainment, lured by the honey of amusement to contemplate the meaning of a novel, no matter how bitter or sour it may seem, that it appears on reflection outside the heat of the moment of reading as if the chief attraction of reading is difficulty itself, when it fact it is the sweet moment of transition from shallow entertainment to a more profound engagement which is the only thing that ever matters in any book: in the moment of coming to care and love, as if in the first bite of the first fruit of the season, is contained in complete immediacy and in one taste the entire satisfaction a book can offer.