Nine Novels for the Science Fiction Novice

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you’ve never read much science fiction — and, really, why would you? It’s weird, full of cheesy aliens, made-up words, and female characters who are overdeveloped in all the wrong places and underdeveloped where it counts — this list is for you.

Actually, this list is not for you. It’s for my wife, a non-fan of science fiction who has graciously agreed to read and review my top 10 9 list[1], in the spirit of trying to understand what makes her husband the (strange) man that he is.

In putting together this list, I’ve sought to include books that are:

  • Representative of science fiction. This list is meant to introduce you to this great genre of literature, not trick you into reading something respectable that borrows the trappings of science fiction. This list also attempts to provide samples of the wide range of science fiction.
  • Accessible to a science fiction novice. Some of my favorite science fiction writers[2] are, quite frankly, too weird for someone new to science fiction.
  • Among the best of the genre. If you’re just starting out, start with the best. There’s plenty of time for terrible science fiction later.
  • Not previously read by my wife.

In chronological order…

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1953)

One of Asimov’s “robot novels,” featuring his famous Three Laws of Robotics, The Caves of Steel is a detective novel that stars New York police detective Elijah Bailey and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw, who has scandalously been made to look like a human being. Set in a future where all of Earth’s population lives under giant metal domes (the “caves of steel”), the novel meditates on what it means to be human.

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A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960)

After a nuclear war devastates civilization, a community of Catholic monks in the American Southwest dedicate themselves to preserving technical and scientific knowledge, in the hopes that future generations will be able to use the information for the good of humanity. This novel spans over a thousand years of future history, while managing to put monumental events into a human scale.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

On the planet Winter, human beings do not have gender. Or, rather, they can have either gender: once a month, they adopt male or female characteristics. A typical person may be both a father and a mother several times during his/her lifetime. An ambassador from Earth has arrived on Winter to convince the planet to join a federation of human worlds. While the novel is famous for its philosophical considerations of gender and sexuality, it also provides an beautiful portrait of intercultural friendship and human nature.[3]

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Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Gibson had never even owned a computer when he invented the term “cyberspace.” In Neuromancer, street punk computer hackers use virtual reality and underground biological enhancements to fight against — and for — multinational corporations, organized crime bosses, artificial intelligences, and, um, spacefaring Rastafarians. An excellent novel which my 14-year-old self was deeply obsessed with.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)

After barely surviving an alien attack, Earth initiated a global search for children who had the greatest potential to become great military leaders. So, 6-year-old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin has been selected to attend Battle School, the training academy of Earth’s military. The novel follows Ender’s growth into adolescence and coming into his own as his own person. The “game” of the title may refer to the zero-gravity training exercises at Battle School, an introspective computer game favored by Ender, or the war itself.

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The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1993)

The rare time travel novel that takes character and place more seriously than the puzzles of time travel. In Willis’s series of time travel novels, the travellers are Oxford historians from about 50 years in the future, studying the past through direct observation. The Doomsday Book features a young female historian who travels to the 1300s, despite the misgivings of her advisor. I was torn between this book and Willis’s double novel from the same series, Blackout/All Clear, set in WWII.

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The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

In the near future, radio broadcasts from a distant planet are detected — hauntingly beautiful music from an alien species. The Jesuits organize an interstellar mission to the new civilization, which ends very, very badly. Russell presents a thought-provoking story of intercultural/interspecies conflict and the nature of suffering.

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

While Ishiguro is best known for his literary period novel The Remains of the Day, he’s not afraid to explore different genres. The science fiction elements of this story unfold slowly, as the awful truth about a mysterious English boarding school becomes clear. Even worse, the characters in the novel take their fate in stride as a simple fact of everyday life, leaving the reader to ponder what horrors he has become accustomed to.

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Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (2011)

I was torn between this book and Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon The Deep as the representative for space opera. The first novel in “The Expanse” series (recently turned into a TV series by Syfy), it features a noir-ish cop from Ceres tracking down a missing heiress and a washed up-but-charismatic spaceship captain caught in the middle of an interplanetary crisis. Their worlds collide when we discover that — cue dramatic music — we’re not alone in the universe.[4]

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  1. She’s not that committed to this experiment.
  2. Cordwainer Smith and Gene Wolfe, to name two.
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness is part of Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle,” a collection of novels set in a common universe where, at some point in the distant past, human beings colonized hundreds of worlds, including Earth. Due to an unknown catastrophe, the technology that held the worlds together was lost, and the worlds forgot about each other. The Hainish Cycle describes various moments in the process of humanity rediscovering itself, and each novel serves as a thought experiment about different aspects of human nature. If you enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s novels The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest are good follow-ups.
  4. “James S.A. Corey” is the pen name for the writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Abraham is an associate of George R.R. Martin, and their novels combine the best of Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice — cinematic epics with unforgettable characters — while delivering volumes in their series at a much greater pace. They’ve managed to publish a new book every June for the past 5 years, with several novellas and short stories in between.