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Which Book Should I Read First?

Last year, I asked the SF Signal Readers to help me expand my scifi reading cred and Give Me One Good Reason Why I Should Read Your Favorite Science Fiction Novel. Your responses were fantastic and a little overwhelming, but I went through them and came up with a list of books, which I bought, and now I need your help again.

My plan is to read these books and then come back here and discuss them with you, but where to start?

Here’s the list:

Thanks in advance.

About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

36 Comments on Which Book Should I Read First?

  1. Raimo Kangasniemi // March 11, 2011 at 1:48 am //

    Start with Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas. It’s the best of these, a dark pessimistic space opera of the first class, a modern classic.

    As a second I would suggest Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, a good solid, above average novel that mixes several sub-genres together from cyberpunk to a detective story.

    I would put Powers’ The Anubis Gates as third. I think it’s over-rated, but still an ok mix of fantasy and science fiction in the guise of a time travel story. More coherent than Powers’ novels usually.

    Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star is a sub-par bloated mess, part of a series that basically is the science fiction equivalent of a mountain birthing a mouse when it comes to a “reward” for reading it through.

    I find John C. Wright utterly obnoxious and can’t really offer any objective judgment, so I just say that leave it last and prepare to throw the book against walls if you don’t share his worldview.


  2. Lots of People Liked Banks Phlebas, But I think Its more like a slapstick Joke that no one was in on.

    It actually has many Silly “Stooge” Moments that I’ve heard not one comment about. 

    I like comedy, but not labled as Complex Serious SF.


    Hamilton Takes a Million Pages to give you what you need.   Depends on how much time you got.


    Powers, I’ve yet to get too but Hear lots of things about this book.


    I have yet to get back to Altered by Morgan, But must confess that its the only Book I never finished that I actually thought might be going in a Great direction.(its a Plan to thing of mine)

    All this is basicly meaningless as everyone has their own standards. as well as likes.  Myself, I’d like to see 90% 0f books burned.  Not because I’m against any idea’s etc.  but because I’ll have to find out the hard way that its a Bad Idea for me trust to continually get suckered in by an oppinion and  read the recommendation that ends up B+tch Slapping away a small, But Lost part of my life. 


    Last Good thing I read was Scalzi’s “Old Mans War”   It’s one of the Few books I would ever consider reading a sequel too. Which I’m glad to be doing now. 


    Hip Hip




  3. Pandora’s Star is my favorite Space Opera ever. A long book, yes, but also a wonderful one.

    And The Golden Age is also really, really good. Posthuman fiction with metaphysical disquisitions in the vein of Greg Egan and Ted Chiang.


  4. 1. Pandora’s Star

    2. Consider Phlebas

    3. Anubis Gates

    4. Altered Carbon

    5. The Golden Age

  5. I’ve only read Pandora’s Star (good) and Anubis Gates (good).

    I’d suggest either of those.

    In fact, I’ve been meaning to read more of Hamilton’s stuff set in that universe – I just haven’t got around it.





  6. You’re going to read them all, so you’re looking for a logical order, not just “which is best,” right?  Here’s my thought, with explanations:

    1. Anubis Gates

    I re-read this recently, and it shows its age.  Not in a bad way, but in the way its written and in the forms of tech that people in the 1980s imagined versus those we imagine today.   I worry that if you read it in the middle of the other books it might look pale in comparison, so I’d read it first.

    2. Golden Age

    The Hamilton, Wright, and Banks books are all transhumanist.   I’d read the Wright book first–not because it’s a “great book” (though I do like it), but because it packs a lot of big, wonder-inspiring ideas into a relatively short, easy-to-read package.  Think of this as your “entry drug” to the transhumanist literature, liberating your mind for what is to come.  If you end up throwing it against the wall like Raimo says, try reading the first 1/3 or so of Vernor Vinge’s <i>Fire Upon the Deep</i> or Karl Schroeder’s <i>Lady of Mazes</i> to get the same effect.

    3. Pandora’s Star

    Not too much to say about this that the other commenters haven’t said.  I’d put it here between Wright and Morgan because those two books are relatively short.

    4. Altered Carbon

    Read this between the Hamilton and Banks books.  Both of those are doorstop weight space operas, and you’ll enjoy the change.  It reads short and punchy, so use this medium-future detective story to clear your palate.

    5. Consider Phlebas.

    Like the first poster, I think this is the best of the lot and you should read it last so it doesn’t overshadow the others, especially the Hamilton or Wright books.  

    Hope you enjoy them!

  7. Well, I haven’t read Anubis Gates or The Golden Age, so I can’t really say there, except to point out that Anubis Gates is the only book here that isn’t starting a series (and also the only one without a Kindle version, if that matters).

    But of the three I have read, I probably enjoyed them the most in this order:

    1.  Altered Carbon
    2.  Pandora’s Star
    3.  Consider Phlebas

    And of the three, Consider Phlebas is the only one where I didn’t go on to read the rest of the series, although tbh, I didn’t get bogged down for a couple of books.   I think Banks Culture novels are for those who like their SF to take itself way too seriously.   Banks is probably easier to read if you’re a Euro-socialist though, as he definitely wears his politics openly in the books.

    Of the other two, Altered Carbon is a re-imagined detective novel with a very interesting protagonist, and Pandora’s Star is fairly typical large space opera.

    I’ve now snagged the Wright book for my Kindle, and the Powers book will have to wait until it gets a (legal) electronic release.

  8. I’ve only read a couple of these, so some general comments.


    The Golden Age gets a bad rap because of the author’s beliefs and philosophy. I also recall that Cheryl Morgan did not review it kindly. I think there is better transhumanist books out there–but there is far worse, too.

    Hamilton is a frustrating writer because he uses 1000 words when 100 will do. It takes a while for Pandora’s Star to get going. I loaned it to a friend and he found it problematic. I liked it a lot, though.

    The Anubis Gates is dated, but a classic, and probably where I would start in your shoes.

    Haven’t read the Morgan,and if you follow my comments on the community, I still don’t grok Iain Banks.

  9. Altered Carbon

  10. The PIcard // March 11, 2011 at 10:28 am //

    I’ve only read The Anubis Gates but think it’s brilliant, exciting and original. Pay close attention to all the different versions of themselves the characters go through (bodies, aliases, doubles, disguises) and how that relates to the ending. Also notice how the river is a symbol of transformation.

  11. I think Peter Hamilton blows most other sf writers away, but Pandora’s Star takes a long time to get moving, unless you really like sky gliding.  I actually moved onto the Night’s Dawn trilogy and 2/3’s of the Void trilogy before coming back.  But if you can make it to the chilling part where the alien first appears (200 pages?), you’ll see what all the fuss is about.

    Conversely, I was really amazed by the 1st 2 chapters of Altered Carbon.


  12. Mark McSherry // March 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm //

    @Raimo: “I find John C. Wright utterly obnoxious and can’t really offer any objective judgment, so I just say that leave it last and prepare to throw the book against walls if you don’t share his worldview.”

    Yes, that’s the major reason to read SF. To reinforce one’s worldview.

  13. I’ve been meaning and meaning to get to Altered Carbon based on several friends’ recommendations. Been mostly reading short fiction lately, however….

  14. So no women from the comments in that thread made your list? No Elizabeth Moon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sherri Tepper, C. J. Cherryh, C. S. Friedman, Octavia Butler?

    In that case, you might want to start with John C. Wright’s “Golden Age”–very exuberant far-future space opera.

  15. @Mark McSherry, I think for a lot of people the major reason to read anything is to be entertained.   Not to be taught lessons, moralized to, yelled at, or many other things, though if those things happen along side the entertainment then it’s a good thing.   And it’s certainly possible for books to go so far against one’s worldview that it makes entertainment impossible.

    One such book for me was “Little Brother”.  What a piece of absolute garbage.  It was awful.   Poorly written, thin story with cardboard cutout stereotypes instead of characters.  The only redeeming thing was that I read it free, so it only cost me some small portion of my life that I’d never get back.   And yet I saw many, many folks on the blogosphere saying things like, “read this book and give it to your kids, it’s important”.

    That’s not to say that I can’t enjoy SF written by folks whose politics I disagree with, it’s just that it will almost certainly decrease my enjoyment value, and the work is going to have to be correspondingly that much better written and entertaining apart from that.   And the converse is true, I can enjoy, say, Tom Kratman’s stuff while knowing exactly what it is.   But I’d never have posted anything like “Read ‘State of Disobedience’ and give it to your kids.  It’s important”, even though it’s about the same, quality-wise as “Little Brother”, but at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

  16. @karen burnham

    Actually, I read C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner traveling to and from World Fantasy and liked it, and had previously read all of her ‘Fortress’ novels, so wanted something different. 

    I have an Elizabeth Moon novel (Against the Odds, I think) that I have started and stopped a couple times and don’t know if I will start again or not.

    I also read C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy (Black Sun Rising, When True Night Falls & Crown of Shadows) but didn’t love them – I struggled with the 2nd & only read the 3rd hoping for some resolution and to end the trilogy. 🙁

    so, they did make the purchase list, just not this list since I’d already read (or started to read) em…

    If that makes sense.


  17. Patrick–Well, I’m glad you enjoyed the Cherryh!

  18. Mark Pontin // March 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm //

    I’ve read all these books and I would go with either the Banks or the Wright.

    Interestingly, both these novels are the starts of what would be series and SF careers for each author.

    Banks is by far the more more accomplished writer and Consider Phlebas — while very good — is in many ways a  lesser item than almost every other Culture book that would follow. (See comments above.)

    Conversely, Wright draws little critical esteem for his writing these days, since he’s mostly been wallowing in fantasy trilogies and also has silly religio-political opinions that many find easy to disdain. (Again, see comments.) However, The Golden Age is vastly impressive, although it should be noted it’s in every way a better piece of work than the other two books that would follow it in its particular trilogy. Indeed, nothing that Wright has done since has risen to the level of his first book, IMO

  19. DAVID ELLIS // March 11, 2011 at 6:31 pm //

    Conversely, Wright draws little critical esteem for his writing these days, since he’s mostly been wallowing in fantasy trilogies and also has silly religio-political opinions that many find easy to disdain. (Again, see comments.) However, The Golden Age is vastly impressive, although it should be noted it’s in every way a better piece of work than the other two books that would follow it in its particular trilogy. Indeed, nothing that Wright has done since has risen to the level of his first book, IMO

    THE GOLDEN AGE was written prior to Wright’s religious conversion and, while it smacks of libertarianism in it’s themes, it’s a very good book and doesn’t have the sort of ultra-right wing politics and conservative religiosity that makes reading his blog such a blood pressure raising experience (if you’re a fan of Glenn Beck, however, his blog’ll probably be right up you’re alley).  

    As far as I’m aware the fantasy novels that were published later were actually written first so the reduction in quality may be due to their being early works rather than because of his present worldview.

    The only thing I’ve read by him since his conversion is the short story “Judgement Eve” from the anthology ENGINEERING INFINITY.  It’s a good read in it’s way but definitely shows the influence of his present worldview.  But it’s still well-written and, personally, I find it worthwhile to read the works of those whose beliefs I strongly disagree with. 

  20. Rick York // March 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm //

    I’m surprised that no one has yet asked if you’ve read any or all of these authors.  I will assume that you have read none of them.  I’ve read all of them, mostly when they were first out. Here’s what I’d recommend:

    First, consider Phlebas.  If you haven’t read Banks, you should get to know the Culture.  You’ll never want to live anywhere else.  Phlebas isn’t absolutely the best of the Culture series but, it’s fun, intriguing and Banks is flat out one of the best writers around.  The best of this group and, this is a pretty decent group of which to be the best.

    I love space opera and, nobody does it better than Hamilton.  His books are galaxy spanning, fast paced, intricately plotted and thoroughly involving.  He’s not the greatest writer to come down the pike but, he’s good enough to keep you interested.

    It’s hard to believe that I have Richard Morgan in this position.  He’s a pyrotechnically wonderful writer.  Each of his books reads like it was written to be adapted to the movies; fast paced, witty, entertaining dialogue with strong protagonists. For sheer writing, he’s better than Hamilton but, being retired, I really enjoy those long complicated space operas,

    I agree with what was said above about John Wright but, he is an excellent writer with an extraordinary imagination.  All of this shines through his Golden Age trilogy.

    The only reason I have Tim Powers last is that I read Anubis when it first came out over 25 years ago and have not revisited it.  (There is so much good stuff out there that I find myself re-reading books less and less.)  Powers is a very good and highly imaginative writer.  I tend to favor science fiction over fantasy and, that may be one reason The Anubis Gates is here.

    By the way, is there any way you could get your ISP or advertising provider to not have their ads superimposed on the written text?  On all of my computers, these ads float right over the last three or four columns of your test  Popups are bad but, at least you can get rid of them.  I don’t see a “close” button on any of them.

    I love the site and your work and I visit it at least daily.

  21. I really didn’t like Consider Phlebas that much. I had read Banks’ Matter prior to Phlebas, and liked that quite a bit better. I’ve heard that the best place to start Banks’ Culture series is with the next two books, Use of Weapons and Player of Games. 

    Thumbs up for Pandora’s Star and Altered Carbon. There’s definitely some thematic similarity to them in parts, particularly around the ‘relifeing’ and ‘re-sleeving’ tech that the authors explore. The one problem of Pandora’s Star is that it ends on a literal cliffhanger. In order to get the full story, you’re going to have to read the direct sequel. 

    I haven’t read either of the last two.

  22. Pandora’s Star is great, but it takes a while to kick in. The last half of the novel is excellent, however, and Paula Myo is a fascinating character. Shame that the sequel, Judas Unchained is a bit of a letdown (car chases are fun, but don’t need to be 500 pages long).

    Consider Phlebas lacks the subtlety of Banks’s later Culture books but is fantastic, widescreen galaxy-spanning entertainment with some great humour. As others have said, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession and Look to Windward are much stronger books, but Phlebas is decent enough.

    Altered Carbon is mostly great, but has some flaws. Some embarrassing sex scenes (worse than Hamilton, which is an impressive achievement) and the amusing sentient hotel angle is under-utilised. I think Black Man/Thirteen is a stronger Morgan title, but Altered Carbon is still a solid read.

    I haven’t read the other two. Wright comes across as a bit of a nutcase on his blog but the only piece of short fiction of his I’ve read, his story in Songs of the Dying Earth, was pretty good and The Golden Age has a reasonably good profile. I’ve been meaning to read Tim Powers for years and The Anubis Gates has an enormously impressive rep.

  23. Dan Geiser // March 12, 2011 at 9:23 am //

    Altered Carbon jumps right into it and I think you’ll be able to tell very early on if you are going to like it or not.

  24. “The only thing I’ve read by him since his conversion is the short story “Judgement Eve” from the anthology ENGINEERING INFINITY.  It’s a good read in it’s way but definitely shows the influence of his present worldview. “

    Actually, just for the record, JUDGMENT EVE was written about a decade before the author’s conversion to Christianity and could not find a buyer. (It was rejected from Absolute Magnitude magazine on the grounds of being “too literary” — the nicest reason for a rejection one can envision!)

    The world-view reflected in the story shows the science fiction version of angels as bad guys, and the science fiction version of the sons of Cain who survive of the flood of Noah by becoming ettins and monsters as good guys — this would seem, at least at first glance, to be the opposite of what one might expect from the Christian world view.

    Perhaps the world view whose influence you are detecting is that of George Gordon, Lord Byron, a man who can perhaps be called a pagan of the romanticized modern sort. One of his less well known works is a play called HEAVEN AND EARTH, where a fallen angel defies the tyranny of heaven by saving his beloved, a daughter of Cain, from the deluge, and she in love with Japeth, one of the sons of Noah destined for salvation: as you might detect, JUDGMENT EVE is merely a translation into another metaphor of the same events.

    The theme is one that easily lends itself to the wonder of science fiction. Byron’s play is in the public domain, and you can read it here:

    To answer the question asked by Patrick Hester, were I you, I would read ANUBIS GATES by Tim Powers first (and maybe read his ON STRANGER TIDES after).

  25. DAVID ELLIS // March 13, 2011 at 10:33 am //

    Actually, just for the record, JUDGMENT EVE was written about a decade before the author’s conversion to Christianity and could not find a buyer. (It was rejected from Absolute Magnitude magazine on the grounds of being “too literary” — the nicest reason for a rejection one can envision!)

    Interesting.  With it being in such a recent anthology and using such clearly religious elements I mistakenly took it for being a reflection of your conversion to Christianity.  I was inclined to give you credit for portraying the rebels against the Overmind/God quite positively despite your Christian beliefs.  I guess I’ll just give you cudos for not making the servants of the Overmind/God obvious villains despite your then atheism instead.

    The world-view reflected in the story shows the science fiction version of angels as bad guys….

    I didn’t really see it that way.  Neither side seemed obviously villainous to me.

    Have you written any science fiction stories (other than the Null-A sequel, where you’d presumably be constrained somewhat by working in Van Vogt’s setting) since your religious conversion?  I’ve been wondering for some time what effect it’ll have on your stories.  Such a radical change in beliefs at mid-life is fairly unusual—at least in writers.  It’ll be interesting to see how the fiction changes.  Or if it does.

  26. DAVID ELLIS // March 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm //

    I’ll have to give the story a second read.  It came across the first time as something a Christian who was trying not to caricature the opposing viewpoint would have written.   But maybe that’s just me.  Anybody else read it?  If so, what was your take?

  27. I don’t wish to highjack the thread from its main discussion, but you did ask. Here is story I wrote after my conversion:

    And another:

    And a third, this one an experimental short-short

    I warn you that someone already misinterpretated ‘A Random World’ to be a pro-creationist mockery of Darwin (even though Creatonism is not a Catholic dogma). I will tell you where the real story idea actually came from, once you read it, should you be kind enough to do so, and be curious from where I was pickpocketing ideas.

    And one more:

    This one that has an honest-to-goodness angel in it, and it was published in a religious publication. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide if the angel is a good guy or not.

    If you find any marked difference in my writing before and after my conversion, please tell me. I would be interested in your opinion.

    So far, I have seen no marked or obvious differences in writing style. I am not Phillip Pullman, by which I mean I am not a good a writer as he, and not willing to use my story-telling as a substitute form of editorial writing. I write pleanty of editorials and put them were people who want to read editorials can find them.

  28. 1. Pandora’s Star – best of the group.  Big…epic

    2.  Altered Carbon – Morgan is great.  I have no complaints.

    Then Anuibus and Golden Age.

    I wouldn’t read Consider Phelbas.  Almost every Banks fan swears this is his best or near it, and if it is, I want no part of anymore Banks’ novels  The big ideas are ok, but I could care less about the characters he created.  Plus, I think Midas got it right when he said it had silly “stooge” moments.  The one that always stood out to me, which was more of a Road Runner vs. Wile Coyote moment, was the when the train was bearing down on the group.  It took forever and Banks kept going to the train and then back to the group and then to the train and back..etc. etc. 

  29. 1. Anubis Gates.  Vastly entertaining.  I can’t get enough Tim Powers.  It’s going to be very light on the scifi elements, though, and won’t really compare to the others.

    2. Golden Age.  I didn’t like this enough to read the sequels, but it contains some truly original, fun and challenging ideas.  I much prefer Wright’s Orphans of Chaos trilogy, but then, that’s fantasy.

    3. Consider Phlebas.  I’m not a Banks fan – read two or three of his novels, this one first. It’s an engaging plot, but as with most contemporary space opera I’ve read, the characters aren’t very interesting.  Maybe it’s just that I’d seen most or all of the “inventions” before, too – vast AIs, ringworlds, anomalies, etc.  The Culture bugs me in how paternalistic and utopianist it is, too.

    Haven’t read the other two.  Mean to, someday.

  30. Anubis Gates is remarkably good.  It pulls off the rare trick of having real literary depth and being very entertaining at the same time.  I’ve read three of the books on your list, and its the one I re-read.

    Golden Age was also pretty good.

  31. ElZarcho // March 31, 2011 at 4:46 pm //

    Golden Age and the following books were excellent. It’s refreshing to have my worldview challenged, honestly; a man should read both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and both Rand and Marx. A modern education leaves the mind too narrow.

    Vernor Vinge is excellent too.

  32. MsGoblinPants // March 31, 2011 at 7:23 pm //

    I haven’t read the sf of any of these authors, but I loved Tim Powers and Richard Morgan’s fantasy (fantastic world building, memorable and unique characters, and just plain great writing–Morgan’s is more exciting, Powers might be more…middle-aged and jaded?) and hated Wright’s Orphans of Chaos (fine concept, poor execution, absurdly purient and pedophilic).  So based purely on their other works, I vote Powers or Morgan.

  33. Dan Berger // April 1, 2011 at 6:50 am //

    Mr. Wright, this is probably as good a place as any to point out that I enjoyed <i>The Last Guardian of Everness</i> immensely, but found <i>Mists of Everness</i> far too preachy even though the philosophical underpinnings are, of course, identical. Haven’t gotten ’round to <i>The Golden Age</i> yet.

    I’m glad that you haven’t allowed your inner Pullman such free reign since <i>Mists</i>.

  34. “…wallowing in fantasy trilogies and also has silly religio-political opinions that many find easy to disdain.”

    Oh, dear.  Wallowing in fantasy?  That’s my primary reading for the past twenty years put in its place!

    Like everything, I imagine it depends upon the fantasy.  “Wheel of Time” – had I spent more time on it than I already wasted, I would accept your excoriation.

    On the other hand, I didn’t read a great deal of SF (despite having been seduced by the genre at the early age of seven) because I got tired of being belaboured with doorstep-sized volumes showing off the author’s hardest of the hard SF credentials.

    On the other hand, though as a non-American I wouldn’t agree with Mr. Wright’s politics, I can overlook such if I’m enjoying the tale otherwise.  Indeed, I enjoy Mr. Banks though I do find his religio-political opinions silly in their turn (I like the Culture novels but the assumptions underlying their society appal me, particularly the Culture’s complete lack of scruple or debate in interfering in the affairs of other worlds once they are judged to possibly present a threat to the Culture, either at the time or in the future).

    Indeed, as a religious believer (Roman Catholic, in this case), if I didn’t read any SF/F author whose opinions I found objectionable or silly regarding their view of religion, I pretty much wouldn’t have read anyone at all.





  35. Mark Whipple // April 1, 2011 at 3:16 pm //

    I highly recommend The Golden Age. Really, any of Wright’s books are good reads. The Sci Fi side can be complex reads, though. If you like fantasy definitely grab the Orphans trilogy. It’s an easier read and quite bad ass.

    I am really glad i don’t give a **** what someone thinks personally. I’ll read anything if it’s good. I will most likely not think something is good if it just bags on things I like but, in the end, it’s about what I spend my time doing. I prefer spending it reading great writers like Wright.

  36. Osvaldo M. // April 12, 2011 at 12:39 pm //

    Having now read four of your five, I’d rank ’em like this.

    Anubis Gate — this book is really something

    Pandora’s World — gripping, intereting alien race, a couple of genuine characters, no cardboard plot elements or characters

    Golden Age — amazing, amazing world building

    Altered Carbon — pretty readable, but flawed.  Enjoyed the book but not on my re-read list

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