You’ll find a lot of “hard” science fiction here – not much fluff.
Dark Roasted Blend posted a great online spreadsheet of scifi and fantasy since 1990 if you’re looking for some newer works.
From his overwhelming output, I recommend novels from his Robot/Galactic Empire/Foundation universe. Best of all is the Foundation Trilogy, which received a special Hugo Award as the greatest all-time science fiction series:
- The Foundation Trilogy
There are several related novels from the Foundation/Galactic Empire universe listed below. Years after this trilogy, Asimov integrated the foundation universe with his “Robot” series. If you get hooked on this universe, there are also prequels and sequels of varying quality and age:
- Prequels to the Foundation Trilogy
- The Robot Novels
- The Galactic Empire Novels
- Foundation Trilogy Prequels
- Sequels to the Foundation Trilogy
The librarian recommends almost anything Greg Bear has written, highlighting the following novels of exceptional quality:
- Moving Mars (1993, ISBN 0812524802)
- Queen Of Angels (1990, ISBN 0446361305) and Slant (1997, ISBN 0812524829)
- The Forge Of God (1987, ISBN 0812524330) and Anvil Of Stars (1992, ISBN 0446364037)
- Darwin’s Radio (1999, ISBN 0-345-43524-9)
Benford is a physicist whose works range in quality from fascinating to tedious. His Galactic Center series has an intriguing concept, but he totally exhausts it by the sixth book (reminiscent of Herbert’s overextension of the Dune saga). Instead, try these three novels:
- Artifact (1985, ISBN 0380791951)
- Timescape (1980, ISBN 0553297090)
- Heart Of The Comet (with David Brin; 1986, ISBN 0553258397)
A tour de force of world-building, atmosphere, humor, and characterization, Berry fully transported me into his world of somnambulism.
- The Manual of Detection (2009, ISBN 0143116517)
No one else writes with Bradbury’s lyricism and poignancy. He is the master of the short story, and there you will enjoy him best.
- Favorite Short Stories
- There Will Come Soft Rains
- The Veldt
- Calling Mexico
- All Summer In A Day
- Favorite Novels
You can’t go wrong reading anything by Brin, but the librarian is particularly fond of his Uplift novels, which are as much fun to read as Niven’s Known Space series.
- The Uplift Novels
Want a wild romp through a dystopia? John Brunner is definitely your man. Stand On Zanzibar is a classic you should not miss, and won the 1969 Hugo. If you like the book and want more, Jagged Orbit is for you. If you are not into dystopias, go for Total Eclipse.
- Stand On Zanzibar (1968, ISBN 0837604389)
- Jagged Orbit (1969, ISBN 0283980850)
- Total Eclipse (1974, ISBN 0297770063)
Arthur C. Clarke
The father of hard science fiction, Clarke is probably best-known for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the memorable Childhood’s End. He was the first person to conceive of the communications satellite and has a much better track records at predictions than most. Clarke was justifiably famous for his non-fiction as well as his fiction, and I own almost every book Clarke ever authored. Here are the personal favorites:
- A Fall Of Moondust (1961, ISBN 9993559385 or 0575602902)
- The Fountains Of Paradise (1978, ISBN 0446677949)
- Rendezvous With Rama (1973, ISBN 0553287893)
There are three sequels to the Rama book. They were co-written with Gentry Lee, so they have a very different feel, but they do eventually solve all of Rama’s mysteries:
Thomas M. Disch – Criticism and Analysis
- The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (1998, Free Press/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-82405-1)
Disch was a respected author of sci-fi who offered a powerful, chatty, and quite readable look at how science fiction has evolved and meshed with our culture’s fabric with conspicuous weaves of politics, religion, and entertainment. He offered tough love for everyone, from conservatives ala Heinlein and Pournelle to liberals ala LeGuin to crazed ala Dick. The behind-the-scenes viewpoint from this sci-fi author is particularly compelling.
Robert L. Forward
Another physicist, Forward’s story of life on a neutron star is great fun.
- Dragon’s Egg (1980, ISBN 034543529X)
There is a sequel, Starquake (1985, ISBN 0345312325), but it is not as nifty.
Here is where a bit of fantasy creeps into the list. Neil Gaiman’s work is fantastic in both senses of the word. Unforgettable characters and dark storylines (and quite funny black humor in the book with Terry Pratchett) make his work far more appealing than fantasy’s more typical riffs on Tolkien. If you want entertainment, start with Good Omens, but if you want to see Gaiman’s power, read American Gods.
- Good Omens (1990, ISBN 0441003257)
- American Gods (2001, ISBN 0380789035)
- Neverwhere (1996-7, ISBN 0380789019)
Gibson is famous for his invention of “cyberspace” in Neuromancer (1984, ISBN 0441569595, Amazon), which began his series of cyberpunk novels and started a new genre in science fiction. I particularly like the ones listed below, with his near-future work of Pattern Recognition having some amazing prose.
- Pattern Recognition (2003, ISBN 0425192938)
- Virtual Light (1993, ISBN 0553566067)
- The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling, 1991, ISBN 055329461X)
Herbert’s Dune universe is fascinating and horrifying. He took it too far, but the first four of the six books are worth reading, with the fourth one my favorite for its outrageous, twisted humor:
- Dune (1965, ISBN 0441172717)
- Dune Messiah (1969, ISBN 0441172695)
- Children Of Dune (1976, ISBN 0441104029)
- God Emperor Of Dune (1981, ISBN 0441294677)
- Heretics of Dune (1984, ISBN 0441328008)
- Chapterhouse: Dune (1985, ISBN 0441102670)
These haunting children’s books deal with good and evil. The first one is a classic and deservedly won the Newbery Award; the last one is the most complex of the three.
- A Wrinkle In Time (1962, ISBN 0440498058)
- A Wind In The Door (1973, ISBN 0440487617)
- A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978, ISBN 0440401585)
A newer voice in near-future science fiction. Lethem has a fertile imagination and loves to bring a sci-fi twist to literary themes, from detective noir to the western. His books are short and great, a nice change from the heavy lifting of many recent sci-fi efforts. Note that his short stories are not as good as his novels.
- Gun, with Occasional Music (1994, Tor [Tom Doherty Assoc.], ISBN 0-312-85878-7)
- As She Climbed Across the Table (1997, Vintage [Random House], ISBN 0-375-70012-9)
- Amnesia Moon (1995, Tor [Tom Doherty Assoc.], ISBN 0-312-86220-2)
- Girl in Landscape (1998, Vintage [Random House], ISBN 0-375-70391-8)
Niven is my favorite science fiction author, so this listing will be extensive. Niven’s universe-building is magnificent and he has some of the best aliens around. His “Known Space” series is immense fun, seeing how the different parts coalesce over a period of over a thousand years, with the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Ringworld a great place to start. Unfortunately, his work since 1990 suffered as he would sacrifice narrative for logistics and puzzles, but he rebounded with Ringworld’s Children and the Fleet of Worlds collaboration.
- Known Space
Underlined titles shown with years of publication are novels. You can locate most of the various short stories in one of these collections: Neutron Star (1968, ISBN 0345336941), A Hole In Space (1974, ISBN 0345240111), Tales of Known Space (1975, ISBN 0345334698), N-Space (1990, ISBN 0812510011), Playground Of The Mind (1991, ISBN 0812516958). All of the Gil Hamilton stories have been collected in Flatlander (1995, ISBN 0345394801), while only the first three appear in The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton (1976, ISBN 0345248686). The Beowulf Shaeffer stories were all collected and linked together in Crashlander (1994, ISBN 0345381688).
- Present – 2100
- The Coldest Place
- Becalmed In Hell
- Wait It Out
- Eye Of An Octopus
- How The Heroes Die
- The Jigsaw Man
- A Gift From Earth (1968, ISBN 0345350510)
- The Ethics Of Madness (erroneous dates are given)
- The Beowulf Shaeffer Stories
- Neutron Star
- At The Core
- The Handicapped
- The Borderland Of Sol
- A Relic Of Empire
- The Soft Weapon
- Fleet of Worlds with Edward M. Lerner (2007, ISBN 0765357836)
- The Beowulf Shaeffer Stories
- Present – 2100
- Draco’s Tavern Stories
Stories set in a universe that centers on a certain bar…reminds one of Clarke’s White Hart stories. You’ll find these in the collections Convergent Series (1979, ISBN 9991661247), Limits (1985, ISBN 0345321421), and Playgrounds Of The Mind (1991, ISBN 0812516958).
- The Schumann Computer
- Assimilating Our Culture, That’s What They’re Doing
- Cruel And Unusual
- The Subject Is Closed
- Grammar Lesson
- Folk Tale
- The Green Marauder
- War Movie
- The Real Thing
- Teleportation Stories
These stories explore the consequences of teleportation; their “displacement” booths also appear in the Known Space universe. You’ll find the first four stories in the collection A Hole In Space (1974, ISBN 0345240111) and the last one in The Flight Of The Horse (1973, ISBN 0345334183).
- The Alibi Machine
- The Last Days Of The Permanent Floating Riot Club
- A Kind Of Murder
- All The Bridges Rusting
- Flash Crowd
- Time Travel Stories
The first six stories are the adventures of the blundering Svetz and his extension cage. The first five can be found in The Flight Of The Horse (1973, ISBN 0345334183), and more recently grouped with the novel-length sixth tale, Rainbow Mars. The last two are found in either All The Myriad Ways (1971, ISBN 0345334167) or N-Space (1990, ISBN 0812510011).
- The Flight Of The Horse
- Bird In The Hand
- There’s A Wolf In My Time Machine
- Death In A Cage
- Rainbow Mars (1999, ISBN 0812566785)
- All The Myriad Ways
- For A Foggy Night
What links these very different tales together is the use of ram-jet technology. You’ll find the first two short stories in A Hole In Space (1974, ISBN 0345240111) and All The Myriad Ways (1971, ISBN 0345334167), respectively. The first novel is a personal favorite out of Niven’s work.
- Magic Stories
Here are magic-fantasy tales with the Niven twist. You’ll find them spread around in The Flight Of The Horse (1973, ISBN 0345334183) as well as Playgrounds Of The Mind (1991, ISBN 0812516958) and a collection in The Time Of The Warlock (1984, ISBN 0916595021).
- Notable Collaborations
Niven’s long collaboration with Jerry Pournelle has produced some worthy novels, although Pournelle brings out right-wing philosophies, similar to those Heinlein espoused late in life. Niven’s Dream Park novels with Steven Barnes offer little, and the testoterone-drenched Heorot books with Pournelle and Barnes wears very thin. Below are some recommended highlights of Niven/Pournelle:
- Known Space
David Pringle – Science Fiction Encylopedia
- The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: The Definitive Illustrated Guide (1996, JG Press/World, ISBN 1-57215-212-5)
Pringle, the editor and publisher of the monthly Interzone sci-fi rag offers a very tasty and filling overview of the genre, complete with many appreciated photos. The history, movies, television, authors, characters, and magazines all receive full treatment with polished text and superb visuals.
Reynolds is busy constructing a wonderful environment of extremely advanced future nanotech, complete with plagues. Interesting characters and plot extensions retain your interest after you’ve discovered much of his construct.
- Revelation Space Universe
- The Prefect (2007, ISBN 0441017223)
Takes place in the Glitter Band era, at the height of civilization before The Plague.
- Chasm City (2001, ISBN 0441010644)
“Set slightly earlier than the main action in the first book of the Inhibitors Trilogy, this is a “noirish revenge thriller set in the aftermath of a nanotech-engendered plague.”
- The Inhibitors Trilogy:
- Revelation Space (2000, ISBN 0441009425)
“A dark-tinged space opera set five hundred years from now, in a universe in which intelligent life is puzzingly rare.”
- Redemption Ark (2002, ISBN 044101173X)
“A loose sequel to Revelation Space, set about 50 years later. The hero of the book is the war veteran Clavain, who has already appeared in a couple of short stories.”
- Absolution Gap (2003-4, ISBN 0411011586)
“The third and final part of the loose sequence of books dealing specifically with the Inhibitor threat.”
- Revelation Space (2000, ISBN 0441009425)
- The Prefect (2007, ISBN 0441017223)
- Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003, ISBN 0575075163)
“Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days are two independent novellas set against the same background as the other books. The first concerns a murderous alien structure, while the second concerns life on an aquatic world dominated by semi-sentient alien lifeforms.”
- Century Rain (2004, ISBN 0411012906)
“Much less of a hard-SF book than the others. It does have some space travel in it, but it is also about alternate history and the possibility of time travel. Much of the book is set in two versions of Paris: one in a future recognisably derived from our present, and one in a past that is not quite the one in the history books…[Century Rain] has elements of noir and the hardboiled crime novel”
- Pushing Ice (2004, ISBN 0441015026)
A tale, independent of the other books, which has a great shift of scale to grand space opera.
- House of Suns (2008, ISBN 0575082372)
Another independent tale of grand scale with a touching climax.
Sheffield’s work is reminescent of both Clarke and Niven and offered a nice contrast to the cyberpunk genre. He usually focused on the future development of the solar system and had very memorable characters.
- Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1996, ISBN 0553578898)
- The Mind Pool (1993, ISBN 0671721658)
- Cold As Ice (1992, ISBN 0812511638) and The Ganymede Club (1995, ISBN 0812544609)
- The Spheres of Heaven (2001, ISBN 067131856)
- The Web Between The Worlds (1979, ISBN 0345344359)
- My Brother’s Keeper (1982, ISBN 0441551343)
- Between the Strokes of Night (1985, ISBN 067155977X)
- The Proteus Stories – Sheffield explores a future where humans can physically transform themselves with biofeedback. These works are uneven but interesting.
- The Heritage Universe – Sheffield develops a universe populated by mysterious Artifacts. Fun characters, but somewhat like Clarke’s Rama stories, some mysteries are best left unsolved.
Simmons takes you on an epic adventure in his four Hyperion books. They have great characters and an intricate plot that blends religious imagery, some fake hard science, and a bit of fantasy into one magnificent space opera. If you know Chaucer, which I don’t, you’ll likely enjoy it all the more. The first two books could stand alone, but you wouldn’t want to miss out on the rest of the story. Like Asimov, Simmons stumbles a bit making it all work, but his series hangs together better than Herbert’s Dune saga.
- Hyperion (1989, Bantam/Doubleday, ISBN 0-553-28368-5)
- The Fall of Hyperion (1990, Bantam/Doubleday, ISBN 0-553-28820-2)
- Endymion (1995, Bantam/Doubleday, ISBN 0-553-57294-6, Amazon)
- The Rise of Endymion (1997, Bantam/Doubleday, ISBN 0-553-57298-9)
Stephenson has taken the cyberpunk genre pioneered by Gibson and Sterling to an entirely new level. His Diamond Age is smashing good fun, and Silicon Valley finds the vision of virtual reality presented in Snow Crash “insanely great”.
- The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995, ISBN 0553573314; the hardback is more readable than the paperback)
- Snow Crash (1992, ISBN 0553562614)
Sterling is one of the best cyberpunk writers. He also has some very interesting short stories.
- Distraction (1998, Bantam/Random House, ISBN 0-553-57639-9)
- Holy Fire (1996, ISBN 055357549X)
- Islands In The Net (1988, ISBN 0441374239)
- Heavy Weather (1994, ISBN 055357292X)
- The Difference Engine (with William Gibson, 1991, ISBN 055329461X)
- Schismatrix (1985, ISBN 0441003702)
Vinge is a creative writer who can build a universe. His physics in the Realtime work is questionable, but it is fun and reminds one of Niven and Pournelle’s war stories. The “Deep” books are tales of creatively imagined aliens on a single planet, embedded in a space opera with a sweeping scale of space and time. Vinge’s limited output has racked up one Hugo nomination after another.
- A Fire Upon The Deep (1992, ISBN 0812515285)
- A Deepness in the Sky (1999, ISBN 0812536355)
- Across Realtime (1991, ISBN 0671720988) – a collection of the novel The Peace War of 1984, the novella “The Ungoverned” of 1985, and the novel Marooned in Realtime of 1986
Willis has racked up numerous Hugo and Nebula awards with her outstanding characters and clever plots.
- To Say Nothing Of The Dog (1998, Bantam, ISBN 0553575384)