1. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
I first read this book about ten years ago when I started reading science fiction novels. I repeatedly saw Snow Crash on many “greatest sci-fi books” lists and it was considered the best in the cyberpunk genre (along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer). When I first read Snow Crash, (and Neuromancer for that matter) I liked parts of it, but most of the book went over my head. I was looking for cyberpunk action (such as the computer hacking and futuristic skateboarding) and became bored by the ancient religious and evolution of language aspects, which I did not fully understand. I didn’t recognize it as being a portrayal of an anarcho-capitalist society the first time around, as I did not know what that was. Ten years older and wiser, I now find the philosophical aspects of the book the most fascinating, and the hacking, action, and skateboarding parts are like gravy on top. Snow Crash is like all my varied interests (technology, futurism, virtual reality, hacking, skateboarding, pizza delivery, punk rock, samurai swords, economics, history, philosophy, libertarianism, ancient religion, language, and the evolution of consciousness) all rolled into one book. It doesn’t seem like there can be that many different ideas in one novel but there are and it all somehow fits together.
2. Axiomatic by Greg Egan (1990)
This is my favorite short story collection I’ve read since Ted Chiang’s (Exhalation and Stories of Your Life and Others). Egan writes similarly smart science fiction that has inventive complex plots but is also deeply philosophical. It’s astonishing that this collection full of stories about future technology came out thirty years ago—it didn’t feel dated at all and could have been written today. Egan has become one of my favorite writers and I will definitely be reading more of his work in the future.
3. Golden State by Ben H. Winters (2019)
A Chinatown-esque Raymond Chandler-caliber detective mystery, set in a Philip K. Dickian alternate universe and/or near-future that’s a cross between Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle, about a society reminiscent of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, in which lying is not only outlawed but the highest of crimes. In short, I loved it. My favorite genres are noir mysteries and near-future science fiction, and my absolute favorite genre is a combination of those two. This book has an A+ labyrinthine murder mystery plus A+ sci-fi world building. I could not recommend it more.
4. VALIS by Philip K. Dick (1981)
This “science fiction novel” is insane—in the best way possible. I put science fiction novel in quotes because so much of the story is true. It’s based on PKD’s life and the weird, seemingly supernatural experiences he had in which he claimed to receive messages from God, or a Vast Active Living Intelligence System, aka (VALIS). He wrote about those experiences directly in his long “Exegesis,” but this novel is a more condensed and focused distillation of that incident plus his philosophical and theological theories, all wrapped together in an entertaining fictional narrative form.
5. The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu (2020)
Ken Liu ranks up with Ted Chiang and Greg Egan as my favorite science fiction short story writers. Many of Liu’s stories are similar to Black Mirror in that he writes about near-future technology and its effects on humans and society, but his stories are more subtle and nuanced than Black Mirror, more humanistic and emotional. (And this is coming from someone who loves Black Mirror.) Whereas the message in most Black Mirror episodes is future technology will be bad, Liu’s message is that future technology will be messy. New technologies will bring both good and bad because humans are messy, both good and bad—often the same people at the same time.
6. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959)
A true work of (and about) genius. Intellectually stimulating and deep philosophically while also deeply moving emotionally. Heartbreaking at times and heartwarming at others. It’s easy to see why this book is considered a classic.
7. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1996)
I read the first Hitchhiker’s Guide book years ago (around the same time as Snow Crash and Neuromancer), and I had a similar experience of liking it but not fully grasping it all. I decided to re-read it before reading the other four books in the series for the first time this year, and I appreciated book one much more the second time around—it’s a perfect blend of mind-blowing science fiction, laugh out loud comedy, and existential philosophy. I liked the sequels less, but they were still worth reading. The original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy remains an all-time classic and likely will remain so until the end of the universe…or 42.
8. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (1936)
This was my first time reading this classic novella by Lovecraft, about explorers and scientists uncovering ancient ruins under the ice of Antarctica. The story was a clear inspiration for the movie The Thing.
9. Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)
An engrossing mystery/thriller with elements of horror, about a reporter investigating the suicide of the daughter of an enigmatic reclusive auteur cult horror film director reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and J.D. Salinger.
10. Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
A great classic hard science fiction novel by the master of 2001 fame, Arthur C. Clarke. This book (the first in a series, though it stands on its own) is about an encounter with an object in space of alien origin. It’s striking how similar this is to the recent mysterious interstellar object, ʻOumuamua, that flew through our solar system a few years ago (2017), which some speculate may have been an alien spaceship.
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical by author):
- Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories by Robert Aickman (1974)
- Consider Plebus by Iain M. Banks (1987) – The first in Banks’ Culture series is the thinking person’s space opera.
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015)
- The Wendigo (1910) and Four Weird Tales (1907) by Algernon Blackwood
- World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006) – I got in the mood to read this at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (2013)
- The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers (1895)
- The Powers of the Earth by Travis J.I. Corcoran (2019) – Atlas Shrugged in space.
- The Fifth Science by Exurb1a (2018)
- Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard (2015)
- Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)
- Nightshade & Damnations by Gerald Kersh (1968)
- Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction by Chuck Klosterman (2019)
- The Fisherman by John Langan (2016)
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
- The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft (1941)
- The Hike by Drew Magary (2016)
- All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai (2017)
- The New Lovecraft Circle edited by Robert M. Price (1996) – A solid collection of Lovecraft mythos stories by various modern authors.
- Year Zero by Rob Reid (2012)
- White Light by Rudy Rucker (1980)
- The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (2017) – A fantastic time travel story, combining quantum physics, magic, and alternate history.
- Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux (2013)
- Growing Things and Other Stories by Paul Tremblay (2019) – While I normally prefer short stories, I like Tremblay’s novels better.
- Oblivion by David Foster Wallace (2004)
- Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake (1969) – A classic hardboiled noir mystery.
- The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams (2006)