It’s time for the 2009 edition of a question that comes up on SF Signal every so often. The other day, a colleague of mine recently asked me what five sci-fi books I could recommend to her. She had read what she considered to be some classic authors maybe 20 years ago (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) but wondered what was the best of the more modern sci-fi. Interestingly, she felt most of the genre was plot-driven and was honestly looking for that kind of book, but I didn’t restrict myself to that.

I have listed my answer with a little description of why I included the book. But I would appreciate knowing what others might put on their ‘top 5 of recent sci-fi’ list.


The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe. I recommended this book/series with the caveat that it required some degree of thinking and only to pick this up if you wanted a meaty read. I think that with the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, Gene Wolfe is the greatest living genre writer. If that’s true, I think this is his best effort (although I sure am hoping for more!)

Hyperion – Dan Simmons. Remains one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read for all the right reasons – character, story, a degree of horror, and excellent prose. This book and its ties to Canterbury Tales has to be his greatest effort (and I say that having read nearly everything he’s written outside of the short-story collections.)

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card. OK, so while I might dislike the man’s politics but I can’t deny this is a fantastic sci-fi book. What is there to say about this that hasn’t been said a thousand other places. I remarked a few years ago that this is one sci-fi book that looks like it will hold up over time, being held out as simply a great book, not just a great sci-fi book. If only Card would keep his personal views out of the public eye.

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi. I still remember how happy I was to be reading this book – I think I was smiling much of the time. It’s exciting, has a strong story, and decent characters. I figured since she had read the venerable Starship Troopers she would enjoy it and get a look at one of the top new writers (he did win the Campbell.)

Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson. This remains one of my personal favorites and I couldn’t help but add it when I found out she hadn’t read it. I think this is a great representation of a cyberpunk book (better than Gibson anyway) and one most fans should read. Frankly there are many books I could put here in my last slot, from When Gravity Falls to American Gods to Revelation Space but I figured there is time enough for these after she finishes the first 5 :).

[UPDATE: See also our previous Reader Challenge, The Harry Potter Outreach Program, which lists book suggestions (sorted by age group, including adults) for readers new to sf/f, and David Hartwell's Top 32 Gateway Science Fiction Books]

Filed under: Books

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