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MIND MELD: What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library? (Part 1)

This week’s question was suggested by Electric Velocipede‘s John Klima, who suggested a seemingly simple question that’s quite challenging to answer.

Q: What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library? You may choose between 1 and 10 titles.

(Actually, I misinterpreted John’s original verbiage, as he explains below. So this questions isn’t quite what he was asking. Still, the response was high enough to warrant breaking this up into two parts. Part 1 appears below. Part 2 will appear next week.)

Here’s what this week’s panelists said. Do you agree with their choices? What would you pick?

Jim Freund
Jim Freund has the host and producer of WBAI radio’s Hour of the Wolf regarding sf/f since 1972, and is the producer of The New York Review of Science Fiction Readings in NY. When it’s finally updated, you can keep up-to-date with him at

  • Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – Perhaps the original genre-bending novel. The first time you read it, it’s fantasy, but the second time it’s clearly sf. And every time, it’s a great adventure book.
  • The Past Through Tomorrow by Robert A. Heinlein – No, not a novel, but still a continuing story. Some of the best world-building adventure tales of the Golden Era before Heinlein went all, uh, funny.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin – Again, great world-building and free-form thinking. How to write a didactic novel without making you feel like you have a responsibility to read it.
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – Just because.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson – This book invented a genre when we thought we were genre’d out.
  • Ubik by Philip K. Dick – One of the best examples of reality-shifting and a decent of this seminal writer’s work.
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany – The epitome of the ‘New Wave’ movement.
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – Not only a good time-travel piece, but a great example of how to write a political protest book.

Jennifer Marie Brissett
Jennifer Marie Brissett is a writer, artist, and former independent bookstore owner. She is a graduate student in the Stonecoast MFA Program and her work can be found in Warrior Wisewoman 2, The Future Fire, Strange Horizons, and Thaumatrope. She is currently editing an anthology and working on a novel. Her website is

First, let me say I’m thrilled to be invited to participate in a Mind Meld. I read them all the time and I always learn something new when I do. So when I was asked to do this, I dashed to my library and pulled down a lot of books. My problem was narrowing down the list. So being strict about the titles being only science fiction helped (if you count eliminating some of my favorites as helping. Poo!) Anyway, these are the books I loved first as a fan and then as a writer.

On my list, I would have to include many short story collections and first would have to be A Woman’s Liberation edited by Connie Willis and Sheila Williams. This is just a lovely collection of stories. “Even the Queen” by Connie Willis, “Rachel in Love” by Pat Murphy, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler, and the title story “A Woman’s Liberation” by Ursula K. Le Guin are all stories I think every science fiction writer should read and have in their collection. This is a gem in my library. I mostly love these stories because they illuminate the female in scifi. These stories don’t just say “yes, women can do this, too” but “yes, women did it and did it well, without compromising the vision and essence of being women.”

The Locus Awards edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan is another anthology that is just a “must have.” Everything about this collection is wonderful, from the cover done by the great Michael Whelan to all the classic stories included, like “Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison. This book is great for seeing the changes in science fiction over the span of 30 years. I also have a special love for this collection for introducing me to the work of Ted Chiang.

And speaking of Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others is a book that if you don’t have in your library, for gosh sake, don’t tell anyone of your oversight and run out and get it right now! Chiang’s short stories and novellas are a perfect example of why the current obsession with the novel is so misguided. My favorites being “Tower of Babylon,” “Hell is the Absence of God,” and the title story, “Story of Your Life.” His work does that little dance on the genre line. But his stories are so wonderful, any form of fiction should be proud to claim him as theirs.

Ursula K. Le Guin is a goddess. No, I mean it. Her words should be studied like sacred texts. I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness maybe 3-4 times. I’ve lost count. It’s that good. The way she plays with the ideas of difference and sexuality are genius. My favorite line from the book is “don’t touch me.” Read it and look for that moment. Every time I hit that part of the book, it just sends chills down my spine.

Dark Matter edited by Sheree R. Thomas. It was so ground-breaking at the time of its publication. But beyond that, it’s just a good collection of stories that no scifi bookshelf should be considered complete without it.

Dune by Frank Herbert may have been the first real science fiction novel I ever read (or rather tried to read). When I was in the 11th grade I checked this book out of the library. I tried to read it and didn’t get past the first chapter. I liked the writing, but I couldn’t follow what was going on. I tried again when I was a sophomore in college and I was sucked right into the world Herbert created–the sand, the over-obsession with water conservation, the worms. I think every science fiction fan and writer should read this book at some point because it’s just a great example of the power of world building.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, aside from just being an excellent, excellent read, is one of those books that sets your mind on fire. Ms. Butler always said that she wrote in such a way that a sixth grader should be able to read her work. I never understood how amazing a statement that was until I started writing myself. To be able write simply and eloquently while distilling down difficult concepts the way she did is just … well … for lack of a better word, genius. No wonder she won the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award. Recently I’ve been trying an exercise of typing out a whole chapter from this book. You can get a real sense of the amazing way she was able to say so much with such economy of language. For example, the first line from chapter 2, “At least three years ago, my father’s God stopped being my God.” Simple. Powerful. Delivers a lot of information. Sets up drama. All in one sentence. Like I said, genius.

Adding The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov to my list is kinda cheating because it’s four books, but it is really impossible to separate them, so that’s my excuse. 🙂 The Foundation Series is a great example of how scifi can be epic in scope. While I may not be that crazy about Asimov’s writing style, I am just amazed by his plotting ability. He builds stories like nobody’s business. This is a must-have for every scifi fan’s bookshelves. I remember seeing Asimov speak at a symposium when I was in college at BU (he was a professor there). The audience was huge. We were all pretty much there to hear him but we had to wait for 2-3 others to make their presentations. They were well rehearsed, prepared talks. I was hot and bored and even thought of leaving. Then Asimov took the microphone. He had no papers before him. He actually looked like he might be BS-ing the whole thing. But he kept the room captivated. I don’t think I moved, blinked, or even breathed for the entire time that he spoke. That was the power of this master storyteller. It doesn’t matter if your story is true or not, just how well you can spin it. And no one did it better than Asimov.

Alan Beatts
Alan Beatts is the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. He’s been a fan of SF and Fantasy ever since he discovered Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton one very exciting but academically unproductive school year.

Any list of “good” or “important” books is inescapably subjective and doomed to be incomplete. With that in mind, here are some books that any SF fan would probably be happy to own and read. I am not suggesting that they are the best or the most notable but they are modern works that, to my mind, exemplify some of the newer ideas in SF while combining outstanding writing and the capacity to be enjoyed through second and subsequent readings.

  • Market Forces by Richard Morgan for its treatment of a near term and dystopian future combined with a complex and sympathetic protagonist.
  • Implied Spaces by Walter John Williams for combining current ideas of a post-singularity and -scarcity future while at the same time keeping those ideas in check such that they don’t overwhelm the plot or characters.
  • Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks for setting the bar for modern, “big” space opera in concert with a literary style and poignant plot.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts for redefining the degree of alien-ness another species can embody in a narrative so full of ideas and images that I thought about it for weeks after finishing it.
  • The Skinner by Neal Asher for reminding me of how much fun creating an alien ecology can be and for delivering a perfectly paced adventure.
  • The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi for demonstrating a wit and humor that’s all too rare in SF and is as important to me as “big” ideas and “new” concepts.
  • The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod for demonstrating that the politics of the future can be as different from what came before as any other element in an imagined world.
Minister Faust
Minister Faust is an international award-winning author, a national award-winning broadcaster and a full-time writer for a major video game studio. His novels include The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain. His forthcoming novel deals with the growing and vast Somali-Canadian community and the experiences of Sudanese refugees. He’s also working on a book about HBO’s The Wire. He is an acclaimed orator, stage actor, long-time radio broadcaster, and former national television host. He was also a celebrity judge on the two seasons of the national television reality show, The 3-Day Novel Contest. He blogs at

This is my list. These are all terrific books, and if I had more time to think, I would probably swap out some, but that’s only because I don’t strongly dig top-tenning: you know, if I asked you to keep your top ten bodily organs and that the rest would be removed, you could do it, but you’d suffer anyway. Same with this. So consider this list really to mean, “Ten terrific books I had the time to write about today without having to go back and read others.”

  1. The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez – A robot engineered to wipe out humanity just doesn’t feel like it, so he turns to cab-driving. How can you not love that set-up? A miserable bot, he cares about his next-door neighbour’s kids, and when they get kidnapped, he becomes a reluctant private (electric) eye. With great twists on femme fatales and countless other dick-fic conventions, Martinez’s book is easily one of the most fun and pleasurable SF books I’ve ever read. Consider it Alan Moore’s Top Ten meets Walter Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow.
  2. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer – A giant arachnoid alien crosses the galaxy to visit the Royal Ontario Museum to prove Creationism is scientifically valid. Like all Sawyer’s writing, Calculating God is intellectually rich. Combine that richness with the suffering and authenticity of the book’s characters, and Calculating God becomes a profoundly moving, haunting, unforgettable story. One of my favourite books.
  3. A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. – A Canticle for Liebowitz was the first SF book I ever read that explored the most common religious expression on the planet: Catholicism. Doing so in a post-apocalyptic/nuclear terror mode makes the book sound like one long trek through guilt and gloom, but not so: Canticle was also the first funny SF book I ever read (not providing chuckles and smiles up to and not beyond page 20, like a certain other celebrated “hilarious” SF novel). Managing all that across three future historical epochs and still delivering profound examinations of history, faith, and the fate of our sinning species, while delivering a stunning end? That’s a masterpiece.
  4. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin – LeGuin’s The Dispossessed isn’t a triumph of prose or pacing, but structurally and intellectually it’s a must-read. Tracing the life of a physicist in two paths (childhood and adulthood) in alternating chapters, LeGuin explores how the application of theoretical anarchism to an entire society (in this case, a moon orbiting a hyper-capitalist planet) would shape individuals and society (with the physics being a metaphor for all that, if I recall). In the tradition of 19th century utopian fiction, The Dispossessed throws itself into the task of making us consider and reconsider what we think we know, which is surely one of SF’s most important tasks, and does so with spectacular results.
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert – Dune. Only four letters, but a whole universe in them. When I was 15, I’d never encountered a work of fiction so vast it required its own glossary. Herbert stunned me with the richness of his endless worlds, and especially of Arrakis itself; at age 15 I found myself wanting to be on Arrakis. At 15 I also saw Dune as the story of a boy hero defeating the greatest villains of his time, but when I was older, I saw it for what it was, a profoundly tragic story of how the yearning for freedom can easily become a mission of vengeance, conquest and dictatorship. While a professor would later show me what should have been obvious, that Paul is T.E. Lawrence and that Dune is the story of the Arab Revolt (I got part of that at age 15 from the Fremen as the descendents of the Zensunni and the large Arabic and especially Islamic terminology in the book) against the Turks (Harkonnens), I would go on to see how the tragic path of the Fremen jihad says as much about Mao’s China as it does about the betrayals and failures of the Revolt. In short: Paul Muad’Dib is Harry Potter meets Osama bin Laden.
  6. The Final Reflection by John M. Ford – A Trek book on my list? Am I kidding? Nope. John M. Ford, who died way too young, created an encompassing backstory for the Klingon Empire in a story from the Klingon point of view, taking place about 50 years before Kirk was a baby. A Klingon commander learns what it is to be human while teaching what it is to be Klingon, and in the end must fuse a synthesis of those reflections or face a war of annihilation. Pre-Next Gen, this book doesn’t dish out the appalling, simple-minded stereotypes of Klingons (I know Klingons aren’t real; my point is that aliens are stand-ins for specific foreigners or “general foreigners” in SF) that came to dominate Trek. Instead we meet Klingon children and the abusive class-style oppression that warped them; we see cultured, sophisticated Klingons dining on pastries and fascinated by literature; we glimpse the non-theistic Klingon religion and its secular applications to politics that are eerily reminiscent of modern America, especially at the time of the latest financial crash. A compassionate and exciting book, The Final Reflection should have been the blueprint for, quite literally, all Trek that followed.
  7. Finch by Jeff VanderMeer – It’s mutopian fiction: the story of the body and of society transformed into unrecognisability. In an alternate earth in a region reminiscent of Victorian England, humans live under the occupation of intelligent fungal oppressors. And one man, John Finch, veteran of not-forgotten human wars before the occupation, saves his own ass by becoming… a collaborator with the occupiers and therefore hated by everyone, including himself. VanderMeer’s prose stuns throughout, with all the iridescent subtlety and hurricane force of entheogenic mushrooms. Blending detective fiction, science fiction and elegy, Finch explores transformation of body, society and mind in a pulse-pounding plot. Dare I say it? This book reminds me of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but in one way after the other, it’s superior.
  8. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A masterpiece of psychological insight, symbolism and structure, Flowers for Algernon can be and deserves to be read annually, each time yielding new perspectives: fiction as kaleidoscope. Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded 32 year old, undergoes an operation to grant him normal intelligence, but ends up instead as the smartest man alive. But his discoveries of the world of the mind do nothing to prepare him for the miserable life of the heart, the indignities he’d been unable to perceive before his growth and the alienation his growth guaranteed him. Profoundly emotional, intellectual, psychological and mystical, Flowers for Algernon is easily one of the finest novels the United States ever produced.
  9. Valis by Philip K. Dick – So get this: Valis is told from the point of view of a counter-culture SF writer named Philip K. Dick about his friend Horselover Fats. Except it isn’t, because Phil understands that actually, he is Horselover. Except when he forgets. Which is most of the time. From this psychofragmentary opening, Dick unveils an exploration of his own life and hallucinations and delusions he evidently believed were real: that a satellite beamed pink light into his brain to warn him of a hidden, lethal illness in his child’s body that needed immediate medical attention; that that satellite was God; that the Roman Empire never died, and was the real world behind the matrix of illusions of which we are all victims. An enormously frustrating, bizarre, autopathographical, mentally deranged manifesto disguised as a novel, Valis is also a brilliant, a stunning work of Gnostic fiction that leaves one changed by its end. Surely this book was the source for about 89% of Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation. An excellent movie, by the way, but that film’s a disco ball compared to the supernova that is Valis.
  10. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury – What if the European invasion of the Americas, and the European war of racial genocide to occupy especially the Old West permanently, were conducted on Mars instead? From that question arises much of The Martian Chronicles. With flights of whimsy into any number of Bradbury’s social rages along the way, The Martian Chronicles, while shockingly uneven (and even cruel in the case of “The Silent Towns”), demonstrated the quality of prose that SF deserves: flowing, elegiac, scintillating. And unlike the SF tradition that celebrated European global conquest and its many holocausts, The Martian Chronicles, like Wells’ The War of the Worlds before it, tells its tale by demonstrating the suffering and loss of the targets of imperialism, rather than the self-satisfied, fanatical “heroism” of those who carried the swords and aimed the cannons.
Mary Turzillo
Mary Turzillo‘s Nebula winner, “Mars Is No Place for Children,” and her novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl, (Analog) have been selected as recreational reading on the International Space Station. Her work has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Cat Tales, Space and Time, The Vampire Archives, Goblin Fruit, New Verse News, Strange Horizons, and F&SF. Her Nebula finalist, “Pride,” appears in Tails of Wonder and Mystery.
  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. Because she invented the genre. We’re still picking up the pieces. We’ll continue to create artificial life (zombies? Turing-competent computers? cloned babies?) until somebody clones Mary Shelley.
  • Ursula LeGuin, Left Hand of Darkness. Amazingly emotionally involving book about what it means to be alien and yet human
  • Joe Haldeman, The Forever War. Haldeman wrote the seminal book about what war means and what The Other is besides our enemy.
  • Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land. This is actually a book about peace, love, and what we expect out of god-man.
  • Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. Seminal book on censorship and tyranny and why they aren’t such a good idea.

  • Roger Zelazny Lord of Light. Amazing extension of the possibilities of narcissism and at the same time selfless sacrifice for humanity.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle. Ice-nine. What more can I say?
  • Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog. Willis can be screamingly funny while driving railroad spikes through your internal organs. To say nothing of the Bishop’s bird stump.
  • Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Has been cited as an explanation for time travel anomalies more than any other book in history. Plus we discover that conformity is bad for you. And the kid-characters are adorable.
  • Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight. Cinderella with flames and wings. The ultimate revenge against people who keep children in poverty.

My other faves which I am not allowed because I already gave my ten:

  • Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist. A brilliant literary experiment based on an actual psychological diagnosis.
  • Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End. I think this is happening. It’s called the Internet.
  • Frank Herbert, Dune. Huge scary worms, drugs that let you navigate space, and that “I must not fear” poem that everybody loves.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s speculative fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Futurismic and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. Together with Paula R. Stiles and a band of eldritch writers, she publishes the zine Innsmouth Free Press.

Agh! Only ten? Dear lord, what shall I do?

  1. O.K., to start of you should have Frankenstein because you are talking about the mother of science fiction, and just because I’ve always found the creature incredibly compelling. The final moments of the book are heartbreaking.
  2. You should have something by Phillip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the first novel I ever read from him, and it remains my favourite. Dick is incredibly trippy and, if anything else, he’s bound to take you on a wild ride.
  3. The Stars My Destination is one of those stories that packs so much stuff inside: teleportation, gigantic companies, telepaths, spaceships, tattoos. It’s a retelling of The Count of Montecristo, which is one of my favourite books, so more reasons to read it.
  4. You should have Dune. I’ll tell you, I was never too fond of this one, but my dad loved it, and I can see why it had such a huge impact on science fiction. It weaves an intricate, vast net of characters across the universe, all plotting against each other. Plus, Sting played one of the villains in the movie adaptation.
  5. A Clockwork Orange is a must have due to, well … basically everything. The whole world is brilliantly constructed. I loved the slang! Yes, my droog. You ought to keep this on close.
  1. I’m torn between Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles. Both are Bradbury titles, though seemingly opposing in nature. I was deeply awed by Fahrenheit 451 when I read it for the first time, but Bradbury’s Mars has a sense of melancholy that I enjoy.
  2. Nineteen Eighty-Four may seem like an oldie – and yes, I know I keep referencing stuff from decades and decades past, but you must forgive my propensity for retro-love – but it’s still a goodie. I think it’s just a solid book. Plus, sometimes I think I’ve spent long stretches in the Ministry of Truth.
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness should be there because you have to have Ursula K. Le Guin in the mix. Her world is truly compelling and if you look at the context of when this was published, it was a very bold look at gender and communication.
  4. I am fond of anthologies. Cosmos Latinos is an overview of Latin American and Spanish science-fiction and I think it is worthy to see the perspective of authors you wouldn’t normally stumble into at the local bookstore.
  5. Another anthology that I just adore, and I think you should find if you haven’t read yet, is Women of Wonder. I discovered a lot of authors through it.
Cat Sparks
Cat Sparks managed Agog! Press, an Australian independent press that produced ten anthologies of new speculative fiction from 2002-2008. She’s known for her award-winning editing, writing, graphic design and photography. A graduate of the inaugural Clarion South Writers’ Workshop, she was a Writers of the Future prize-winner in 2004. She has edited five anthologies of speculative fiction and fifty of her stories have been published since the turn of the Millennium. Cat has received ten Australian SF awards for writing, editing and art including the Peter McNamara Aurealis Conveners Award 2004, for services to Australia’s speculative fiction industry. She was the convenor of the Aurealis Awards horror division in 2006 and a judge in the anthologies and collected work category in 2009. She is currently working on a science fantasy trilogy inspired by a mish-mash of all of the above.
  • Frank Herbert – Dune – At age fourteen I picked up a battered copy of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel Dune. ‘You’re too young to read that,’ insisted a family friend, so of course I had to give it a go. That novel bent my head. Heroic Paul Atreides; the desert planet Arrakis; giant sand worms; mutant spice navigators folding space and the creepy Bene Gesserit sisterhood… Along with Star Wars and Doctor Who, this book made me the sci fi nerd I am today.
  • John Wyndham – Day of the Triffids – A world struck blind. Such a simple concept and far more terrifying than the carnivorous plant species of the title, which became the focus of the screen adaptations that were to follow.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed – There can be no utopias. This book shows us why.
  • Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker – The first three chapters are a struggle. After that, it becomes a challenge not to think in the language of a post holocaust Earth a few thousand years on.
  • William Gibson – Neuromancer – Still fresh twenty-six years later. He made it all seem so inevitable.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars – When I am 100 years old and barking senile, I will believe I was one of the first 100 colonists of Mars and that KSR’s entire Mars series is a reputable historical document. Anyone who argues with my version of reality will cop a poke from my umbrella.
  • Isaac Asimov – The Caves of Steel – Because I heart Daneel R Olivaw. Will somebody please make a decent movie out of this book instead of tiresome rehashings of quality movies that did not require messing with in the first place.
  • Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake – A book that puts biopunk squarely on the map. Atwood’s characters are as deeply engrossing as the ruined post-commercial environment they inhabit. She could write a shopping list and I’d be holding my breath all the way to the bitter end.
  • Peter Watts – Starfish – Scientist as deep sea more-alien-than-alien, enduring the lure of the abyss.
  • Edited by Charles N Brown and Jonathan Strahan – The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy – Look no further for an excellent short fiction overview of the genres(s). Every library should have a copy of this substantial volume so that whenever a non fan claims all science fiction is rubbish you can bop them on the head with it.
John Klima
John Klima edits the Hugo Award winning speculative fiction zine Electric Velocipede. He is also the editor of the Bantam anthology, Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories, and the forthcoming Night Shade Books fairy tale reprint anthology Happily Ever After. He spends his days among the stacks as a librarian, but has previously worked at such places as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor Books.

  1. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  2. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  3. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  4. Dune by Frank Herbert
  5. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  6. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  8. Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  9. Accelerando by Charles Stross
  10. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

When I proposed this question to SF Signal, I was ordering books for the library and then started thinking about how the SF&F collection likely needed weeding. Often, when a library weeds a collection they look at how often something circulated and how easy it is for patrons to get the book from their library system. If it’s something that wasn’t checked out much and there were a lot of copies in the system, you could feel safe pulling it from the shelf. But, were there books that you wouldn’t weed no matter what? And what science fiction books should every library have in their collection? I know that John put the question to people as if thinking about a personal library, but since I was thinking about a public library when I sent the suggestion to him (and more importantly John said it was ok to do this) I’ll be writing about a public library.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the individual books, but rather I’ll talk about why I chose them over others. This is a difficult mental exercise as no library would bother making a science fiction section with only ten books. You’d be better to make a list of 100 core books so that someone who had nothing had a decent collection with which to start. When making a library collection, you want to represent the breadth of what’s available in those books. That said, there needed to be something from the origins of science fiction. While I leaned heavily towards Frankenstein for a long time, in the end I had to go with H. G. Wells or Jules Verne. I’m better read in Wells than Verne, so I picked The Time Machine.

Then I wanted to hit some classic themes: robots, life on other planets, and aliens coming to Earth. I, Robot has an easy pick as it’s the foundation (see what I did there?) of many of current thoughts and tropes concerning robots in fiction. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are presented within these pages, and those if nothing else have gone on to our subconciousness. I would be hard pressed to consider a SF collection serious if it lacked Dune. When thinking about life on other planets you could certainly bring books like Solaris, Aldiss’ Helliconia books, Farmer’s World of Tiers books, and many more. But for me, it’s Dune with its big ideas and big conflicts that takes the cake. Similarly, when I think of aliens coming to our planet, it’s Childhood’s End that comes to mind (particularly since I already had a Wells’ novel and didn’t need to consider War of the Worlds). At this point, I couldn’t help thinking that I was leaving out people who needed to be in the list, Heinlein, Bradbury, Dick, Vance, van Vogt, but with only ten books to work with, I couldn’t include everyone.

The Stars My Destination combines a lot of those elements, and is loved by many, many fans. It’s not a book that worked for me my first time through it, but it’s something that stuck with me and I plan to read again. It may not be as well known as other books in my list, but I think it’s a good example of showing what science fiction can do that people might not expect. I also considered books like Flowers For Algernon, Lords Of Light, and The Man In The High Castle, but decided to go with the Bester based on how fervent its fans are.

The next three books also showcase the diversity of the field ranging from a young adult space opera to a pioneering cyberpunk work to the beginnings of a very funny series of books. I could have picked A Fire Upon The Deep, Doomsday Book, Snow Crash, Hyperion, The Shadow Of The Torturer, Ringworld, Gateway, The Forever War, and on and on. There aren’t a lot of examples of humorous science fiction (a lot of humorous genre work is done in fantasy) and you almost have to get the more recent Jasper Fforde novels to find those. Both the Card and Gibson books won both the Hugo and Nebula, a feat that doesn’t happen all the time (although Card did it again with Speaker For The Dead).

Moving into modern times, it was hard to decide what could be considered essential. There could be a book that people aren’t reading now that becomes more important in the future. I considered books by Cory Doctorow, Maureen McHugh, Robert Charles Wilson, Kelly Link, Richard Morgan, China Miéville, but I kept coming back to Stross’ Accerlerando. There’s too much good stuff in the book to not put it in the collection.

It was at this point that I was horrified I had no women in my list. In some ways, that only shows how male dominated the genre has been for so long. And while that might be a subtle tick at the field, I doubt that your average library patron would even notice. And it’s too bad as there are a lot of phenomenal books by female authors. Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness, stand out above the rest. It’s also a book that only a woman could write. A winner of the Hugo and Nebula (before Card or Gibson by a mile), it one of the more challenging to read books in my list, but it definitely worth it. The book will make you think. But if building a collection should show diversity, this book can’t be left out.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

18 Comments on MIND MELD: What Science Fiction Books Should Be in Every Fan’s Library? (Part 1)

  1. I love that fact that everyone except Alan Beatts has Ursula Le Guin on their list.   I think this speaks not only to her relevance and place in SF history but just to her gifts as a writer, period.

    I like the idea behind Mr. Beatts’ take, but would choose completely different works.  That’s part of his point, certainly, but when you shift the question as he does to “happy to read,” I think you lose some of the provocation and thoughtfulness of “essential” works.   Most of the titles he recommends are good reads, but I don’t find them potentially canonical, or in most cases very groundbreaking.  Pleasurable fictions?  Sure.  Belong in the athenaeum of the genre?  Not so sure.

    I was also pleased to see Jennifer Marie Brisett’s and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s inclusion of multiple story collections in their lists.  Acknowledging the place of short fiction is necessary to any imaginary SF bookshelf.

  2. Wow. Only one comment. I really expected a “pile on” with this topic.

    I can’t offer anything, though. I’m nowhere near opinionated enough to pick ten. Frankly, John, I think that’s way too limited even just for fun. However, your responder’s answers are an interesting read.


  3. Mine would be (in no particular order)…

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


    Strange in a Strange Land

    A Clockwork Orange



  4. While I’m fairly new to scifi, I’m pleased to discover that these are almost all titles that I’m famiiar with and a few I have even read already. I’m currently in the middle of The Left Hand of Darkness and I’m now eager to encounter the line mentioned by Jennifer Marie Brissett.

  5. Red Mars was seriously one of the best books ive ever read….ever. It’s like KSR actually lived there for 50 years and drove around and documented the entire planet Lewis & Clark-style. absolutely awesome.

  6. Oh man, there’s so many books to include on any essential reading list. 


    My top three:

    1 – Dune, Frank Herbert: one of the greatest works of science fiction, exceptional worldbuilding and concepts. 

    2- Foundation, Isaac Asimov: another great, one that really looks at the scale of history and progress of society

    3 – Ringworld, Larry Niven: Exploration SciFi at its best, fun characters, storyline, world building


    From there…


    4 – The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachagalupi: This book is a new one, but going to be an essential one for me from here on out. Great worldbuilding, relevant issues spilling into the future

    5 – Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan: Great noir/SciFi/Cyberpunk novel in the nearish future, very fun romp. 

    6 – War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells: One of the greatest and best known science fiction novels. 

    6 (Tie) – From the Earth To The Moon, Jules Verne: Provided inspiration for a number of people who made SciFi reality. 

    7 – Frankenstein, Mary Shelly: Another early classic that helped to define the genre. 

    8 – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: A fantastic book on ethics and society. 

    9 – George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – both fantastic books covering somewhat similar issues. 


    10, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, by Robert Silverburg, Editor. This book is essential, completely and utterly, for it’s astonishing collection of stories and authors. 

  7. Cryptonomico // May 12, 2010 at 9:07 pm //

    Great to see my purchases of anthologies of under-represented sf writers are all here. Many stories by people we will be reading more often in the future. Translation is the key for unlocking the global aspects of sf. This is being recognized at the next Eaton conference with an award for new translated fiction.

    Along with that I would recommend Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad just for fun; until you read it again and see yourself.

    For hard sf The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story by Stephen R. Donaldson. Brutal. Redeeming.

    Going back, I’d suggest Piers Anthony’s Macroscope. ANYBODY can see that tarot cards or the zodiac offers a narrative but it takes a writer like him to give us the story.

    Anthologies are like boxes of chocolate… fill in your simile. Mine goes: … I always buy them for myself and don’t give any away. One anthology collecting a subgenre not mentioned is One Lamp. With stories from the 1950s to the new millenium, it has answers to “What if…” that are fun & entertaining. Edited by Gordon Van Gelder.

    Another anthology is actually a series: The Road to Science Fiction edited by James Gunn. Everyone will find their favorite flavor of sf here.




    This is a great article and it has already given me quite a few items to add to my reading list. I split my list into Classics and Moderns (no real time difference here, more of what I consider foundations of scifi versus great books that make the genre so great today).


    1. Dune – First sci-fi book I read outside of school and it’s still one that I pick up to reread once a year or so.
    2. Wrinkle In Time – This was the first scifi book I read, and it was a great way to enter the genre when I was young.
    3. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Though I only read this after watching Bladerunner, it became one of my favorites and always on my audiobook section of my iPod. Some of the concepts covered in the story are so amazing that I keep on coming back to relisten it.
    4. Enders Game – Read this last year and ended up tearing through the entire Ender’s series in a month. The idea of the Battle School and what happened to Ender is so horrible to consider, but once you finish the novel you see that it could not have been done any other way.
    5. Stranger in a Strange Land – I just read this earlier this year based on a recommendation from a friend, and the first half of the story is some of the best scifi i have ever read, it made me want more from the beginning. The second half of the story is not really as good as the first, but it still touches on some interesting topics.


    1. Anathem – The concept of the epic story is alive and well with Anathem. Stephenson creates such a large and engaging world that I keep on thinking that the book will go on even though I know I’m at the end. Another book that is always on my iPod.
    2. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Almost put this under classics, but I absolutely love this book and the rest of the series (even Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing). Adams does a great job providing a good scifi story with humor and at the same time presenting characters the reader can relate to, even if they have two heads.
    3. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Yes its more Horror or even Biographical than Sci-Fi, but the story was so engaging and the topic of vampires was worked in so deftly and at the right moments that I like to recommend it to people on how good a vampire book can be without it being all capes, fang and eastern european accents.
    4. Flashforward – Yes the book and TV show are different, which is sad because it may lead to people missing out on a great book. The novel provides such a gripping story about destiny and free will that you find yourself wondering by the end what will happen to the main characters.
    5. Watchmen – Yes its a graphic novel, but it is one of the best pieces of story telling from the second half of the 20th century. Providing a story about heroes and also their faults was incredibly compelling, and may be part of the reason why comic books writers and comic book based films focus on the faults as well as the superpowers of our heroes.
  9. Thank you thank you thank you someone for saying “Stories of Your Life.”  

  10. Yes, Jose, now that you mention it, I should have put *Watchmen* in there.

  11. I agree with most of the initial picks by the panel, and am eager to see the remainder of the guests’ selections. I think it’s a mistake to include books that are recent, as we don’t have enough perspective on them to know how they will stand up (Jose’s pick of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an example of that. He obviously loved it, but it’s too fresh to know if it will become an essential SF book, especially considering it’s part of the current “vampire trend” and also because it’s not really SF but is, as he says, horror.). Watchmen suffers the same problem, it’s excellent, but it’s a graphic novel, superhero genre, not true SF.

    That said, I think these books should be on the list and certainly deserve to be read, especially by readers new to SF in the last decade or two:

    More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon – certainly the most overlooked classic SF novel here, no one even mentioned it. It should be read by every SF fan and be on every shelf. Most SF classes include it in the syllabus.

    The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls – the essential reference! Absolutely no SF reader should be without this reference book!

    Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement – the definition of “hard SF” begins here. An even better choice would be to have all three volumes of the NESFA collection The Essential Hal Clement. This novel is in volume 3.  

    The Uplift War by David Brin or better yet Startide Rising and The Uplift War. These are excellent, often overlooked books that should be on every shelf.

    On Basilisk Station by David Webber – perhaps the best military SF since Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which is not to discount the quality of either Ender’s Game or The Forever War.

    World of Ptavvs / A Gift From Earth / Neutron Star (omnibus) (1991) – I know Ringworld is the automatic pick for Niven, but these three are superior in plotting, creativity and scope.

    Cities in Flight is an omnibus volume of four novels written by James Blish, comprised of They Shall Have Stars (1956), A Life for the Stars (1962), Earthman Come Home (1955) and A Clash of Cymbals, (published in the US as The Triumph of Time) (1959)

  12. I might add, though this thread seems to have withered, that I’ve read every book mentioned except THE FINAL REFLECTION (the Star Trek book), COSMOS LATINOS (of which I’d not heard), and WOMEN OF WONDER. I can’t speak to those, but the rest are all well worth reading.

  13. The above link lists my opinions on the 25 best books I have read so far in Science Fiction..

  14. My top-10:

    Hard to be godFoundationCity and the StarsWe

    Tales of Pirx the PilotThe InvincibleLeft hand of darknessSlaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

    1. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky «Hard to Be a God»

    The main character of this book Rumata is on the faraway planet. His mission is to observe the society which is fall behind the Rumata’s civilization. It is fall behind so much that Rumata is like a god there invulnerable and almighty. He is so lonely there is no one equal to him and he is unable to stop the

    suffering around him because he has no rights to interfere. He is like a God, which should observe the mankind on the Earth without interference.

    2. Isaac Asimov «Foundation»

    Seldon is a genius scientist. He predicts the future of mankind for thousands years ahead. He creates Foundation, which leads a human race the shortest way away from decay. Generations for generations are living under the will of a dead man, in the university he created.

    3. Arthur Clarke «The City and the Stars»

    The progress of humanity is going two ways, but those who live in the City and those who live outside do not know it. And both of the ways are lead humanity to the dead end. But even this dead end was foresighted by the creators of Diaspar and the main character started a new life for a mankind. The human mind is going further and turns to the stars to find a new life there and finally to return to the Earth again. This book — is a hymn for a human mind, which learns the importance of life and the importance of its own planet.

    4. Yevgeny Zamyatin «We»

    «We» is one of the first anti-utopias. It was written in 1920 far before the excellent Orwell novel, before Bradbury and Huxley books.

    There are no names in the world of main character, just numbers. All people are equal. The main character, D503, is a typical man of his age, a human machine without emotions. He takes a part in building a spaceship called Integral, which should bring an ideal society of human-numbers to inhabitants of the distant stars. But human-number D503 meets a strange woman I303, who began to teach him how to be a different, how to feel. But «We» disagree. «We» is a society of unnamed and there are no «I» could live in an infinity vacuum of it.

    5. George Orwell «1984»

    Excellent book. The consumption society reduced to absurd, the society of idea in ideal realization, dictatorship, vulnerability to the regime, brainwashing to make people obedient and incurious. Everything about relationship between government and individual shown here ruthlessly and it raises a natural horror.

    6. Robert Heinlein «Stranger in a Strange Land»

    It’s a hippie bible. Mike has combined features of the West (Earthlings) and the East (Martians). He is making a pilgrimage through the country full of lie, fraud and psychological manipulation. Mike brings with him Love, free from the conventionalities, prejudice, capable to unite people which separated by a surrounding lie. He just tells everyone he meets: «Thou art God».

    7. Stanislaw Lem «Tales/More tales of Pirx the Pilot»

    In this collection of short stories, Stanislaw Lem, the author of world-famous Solaris, investigates potential of human and human mind, human and his mind in an extreme situation, human’s error element in any kind of human activity, artificial intelligence, its accuracy and potential, opposition or unity of human mind and artificial intelligence.

    8. Stanislaw Lem «The Invincible»

    Stanislaw Lem — one of the greatest science fiction writers and thinker of 20 century. This novel tells us about clash between human mind and incomprehensible alien life. Human’s invincible machines destroyed by power which have no interest in humanity accidently occurred in its path. Do we have rights to interfere in life in the worlds with other rules? The characters of this book ask themselves this question. Also they ask what it is mean to be a human: be a stubborn and fight till the end without any chances to win as uninvited guests. Or return to the home world without the lost friends and leave them behind.

    9. Ursula Le Guin «Left hand of darkness» [The Doomed City]

    The reverse side of «Hard to Be a God». The great Book.

    10. Kurt Vonnegut «Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death»

    Long before Ted Chiang’s «Story of Your Life» another writer thought out and shown a human which lived with full knowledge about his future and future of all people. This writer was Kurt Vonnegut and this book was «Slaughterhouse-Five». This novel asks reader a set of social and philosophical questions. First of all, it is a place of a war in the human life and history, in the destiny of individual man. But not only war, in the novel’s plot we have time travels, immortality, understanding own place in this world, an ability just to live and ability to find strength to do so in the most terrible conditions.

  15. rusty_cat // July 2, 2010 at 3:59 am //

    Sorry! “[The Doomed City]” in the post above must be deleted.

  16. I’ve never read any Peter Watts, but whenever I come across a description of one of his books, they sound so mind-boggingly cool, that you might expect him to be an asbolute superstar in the scene, yet he seems more like a fringe appearance. Anyway, not really constructive or objective (and I should start read him), just a though.

  17. So is Thomas Pynchon a poseur too?


  18. I too love Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but it’s not actually about censorship.  It’s about people becoming drones or idiots, hiding behind technology, becoming cruel and cold, forgetting to relate to one another because it’s easier than facing reality. 

    As it clearly states, the firemen come to take over because society at large has granted them control, not because this small oppressive group has wrangled power and now wants to keep the rest of the world from knowledge and truth.  Essentially, it’s self-imposed censorship, the result of a problem rather than the cause of it.  Bradbury paints a picture of a society in which most everyone rejects true intellectual development–they’re content to listen to their seashells and watch The Family on a wall-sized screen rather than having to think for themselves. 

    I’m not totally sure how people miss this point so thoroughly and instead latch onto the idea of censorship as the primary evil touted by the book, rather than it simply being a byproduct of far worse evils like apathy, a lack of curiosity and compassion, distraction to the point of physical and mental inaction, and fear.

    Perhaps it’s because we are essentially living in the times that Bradbury is writing about with our massive TVs, iPods, and laptops and the real message of Fahrenheit 451 hits too close to home?

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