The 50 SF Books You Must Read

Think you know SF? Sure? Our experts have picked the top 50 SF books that you absolutely have to read! Challenging? Confusing? Contentious? Confrontational? Then comment!

If you think you know better, then let us know... and scroll down to the bottom of the list.

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[Embassytown (Hardcover)]

50. Embassytown (Hardcover)

Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie.

Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts.

And that is impossible.

[Zoo City]

49. Zoo City

Zinzi December finds people, even if they don t want to be found. Like missing pop starlet Songweza. Trouble is, when you go turning over stones and digging up secrets it isn't long before the real truth comes to light. A truth the local crime lord, dark magician and beast master, will kill to keep hidden.

In Lauren Beukes shattered city, magic is horribly real and the criminal classes sport symbiotically linked animals

[The Windup Girl]

48. The Windup Girl

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas.

But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.

[Book 1: Sundiver]

47. Uplift: Book 1: Sundiver

Circling the Sun, under the caverns of Mercury, Expedition Sundiver prepares for the most momentous voyage in our history. A journey into the boiling inferno of the sun, to seek our destiny in the cosmic order of life.

For in a universe in which no species can reach sentience without being 'uplifted' by a patron race, it seems that only mankind has reached for the stars unaided. And now, the greatest mystery of all may be explained.

Sundiver is the firs book in David Brin's magnificent Uplift series.

[The Reality Dysfunction]

46. The Reality Dysfunction

In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature’s boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary spaceborn creatures.

But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive colony planet a renegade criminal’s chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it “The Reality Dysfunction”. It is the nightmare which has prowled beside us since the beginning of history.

[Cat's Cradle]

45. Cat's Cradle

Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding 'fathers' of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he is the inventor of 'ice-nine', a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet.

The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker's three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker's Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to mankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh.

[The Difference Engine]

44. SF Masterworks: The Difference Engine

The computer age has arrived a century ahead of time with Charles Babbage's perfection of his Analytical Engine. The Industrial Revolution, supercharged by the development of steam-driven cybernetic Engines, is in full and drastic swing.

Great Britain, with her calculating-cannons, steam dreamnoughts, machine-guns and information technology, prepares to better the world's lot.

[Centauri Device]

43. SF Masterworks: Centauri Device

John Truck was to outward appearances just another lowlife spaceship captain. But he was also the last of the Centaurans - or at least, half of him was - which meant that he was the only person who could operate the Centauri Device, a sentient bomb which might hold the key to settling a vicious space war.

M. John Harrison's classic novel turns the conventions of space opera on their head, and is written with the precision and brilliance for which is famed.

[The Drowned World]

42. The Drowned World

In the 21st century, fluctuations in solar radiation have caused the ice-caps to melt and the seas to rise. Global temperatures have climbed, and civilisation has retreated to the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

London is a city now inundated by a primeval swamp, to which an expedition travels to record the flora and fauna of this new Triassic Age.

[Pavane]

41. SF Masterworks: Pavane

1588: Queen Elizabeth is felled by an assassin's bullet. Within the week, the Spanish Armada had set sail, and its victory changed the course of history.

1968: England is still dominated by the Church of Rome. There are no telephones, no television, no nuclear power.

As Catholicism and the Inquisition tighten their grip, rebellion is growing.

[Make Room! Make Room!]

40. Make Room! Make Room!

A gangster is murdered during a blistering Manhattan heat wave. City cop Andy Rusch is under pressure to solve the crime and captivated by the victim’s beautiful girlfriend. But it is difficult to catch a killer, let alone get the girl, in crazy streets crammed full of people. The planet’s population has exploded. The 35 million inhabitants of New York City run their TVs off pedal power, riot for water, loot and trample for lentil ‘steaks’ and are controlled by sinister barbed wire dropped from the sky.

Written in 1966 and set in 1999, Make Room! Make Room! is a witty and unnerving story about stretching the earth’s resources, and the human spirit, to breaking point.

[The Player Of Games]

39. The Player Of Games

The Culture has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, the Player of Games.

Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel and incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game...a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life - and very possibly his death.

[Altered Carbon]

38. Altered Carbon

Hero Kovacs has worn many bodies on different worlds as a former member of the UN Envoy Corps, programmed killers to a man. Now the incredibly rich Bancroft brings him to Earth to investigate a killing... of Bancroft himself, restored from his digital backup and rejecting the police theory of suicide.

Half the vice-lords of 25th-century San Francisco are soon chasing Kovacs with futuristic surveillance, drugs and weaponry. Virtual-reality interrogation means they can torture you to death, and then start again. There's a bleak slave trade in rented or confiscated bodies--and Kovacs finds his current borrowed face is all too well known to both police and underworld.

[Dying Inside]

37. SF Masterworks: Dying Inside

Imagine what it would be like if you could tell what the innermost thoughts and feelings of those around you were.

Imagine if, as you reached middle age, you lost that ability. What would it do to you to be like everyone else?

[The Trilogy Of Four]

36. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Trilogy Of Four

One Thursday lunchtime Earth is unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. For Arthur Dent, who has only just had his house demolished that morning, this is already more than he can cope with. Sadly, however, the weekend has only just begun.

And the Galaxy is a very, very large and startling place indeed.

[Blood Music]

35. SF Masterworks: Blood Music

Vergil Ulam's breakthrough in genetic engineering is considered too dangerous for further research. Rather than destroy his work, he injects himself with his creation and walks out of his lab, unaware of just quite how his actions will change the world.

Bear's treatment of the traditional tale of scientific hubris is suspenseful and a compelling portrait of a new intelligence emerging amongst us and changing our world irrevocably.

[Lord Of Light]

34. S.F. Masterworks: Lord Of Light

Who are these gods who rule the destiny of a teeming world? Their names include Brahma, Kali, Krishna and also he who was called Buddha, the Lord of Light, but who now prefers to be known simply as Sam.

The gradual unfolding of the story -- how the colonization of another planet became a re-enactment of Eastern mythology -- is one of the great imaginative feats of modern science fiction.

[Rendezvous With Rama]

33. SF Masterworks: Rendezvous With Rama

Rama is a vast alien spacecraft that enters the Solar System, a perfect cylinder some fifty kilometres long, spinning rapidly, racing through space. Rama is a technological marvel, a mysterious and deeply enigmatic alien artifact.

It is Mankind's first visitor from the stars and must be investigated.

[A Fire Upon The Deep & A Deepness In The Sky]

32. Zones Of Thought: A Fire Upon The Deep & A Deepness In The Sky

Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind's potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depthss. When the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.

Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children--and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.

[Book 1: Red Mars]

31. Mars: Book 1: Red Mars

From the first pioneers who looked back at Earth, to the first colonists, Red Mars is the story of a new genesis. It is also the story of how Man must struggle against his own self-destructive mechanisms to achieve his dreams.

Before he even sets foot on the red planet, factions are forming, tensions are rising and violence is brewing! for civilisation can be very uncivilised.

[Ubik]

30. SF Masterworks: Ubik

Chip works for Glen Runciter's anti-psi security agency, which hires out its talents to block telepathic snooping and paranormal dirty tricks. When its special team tackles a big job on the Moon, Runciter is killed - but he's still sending messages.

Meanwhile fragments of reality are time-slipping into the past. Why does Runciter's face appear on US coins? And why the repeated ads for a hard-to-find universal panacea called Ubik?

[Fahrenheit 451]

29. Fahrenheit 451

Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television "family", imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall. Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbour Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube.

When Clarisse disappears mysteriously, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home. Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature.

[The Death Of Grass]

28. The Death Of Grass

At first the virus wiping out grass and crops is of little concern to John Custance. It has decimated Asia, causing mass starvation and riots, but Europe is safe and a counter-virus is expected any day. Except, it turns out, the governments have been lying to their people.

When the deadly disease hits Britain they are left alone, and society starts to descend into barbarism. As John and his family try to make it across country to the safety of his brother’s farm in a hidden valley, their humanity is tested to its very limits.

[Inverted World]

27. SF Masterworks: Inverted World

On a planet whose very nature is a mystery a massive decrepit city is pulled along a massive railway track, laying the line down before it as it progresses into the wilderness. The society within toils under an oppressive regime, its structures always on the point of collapse, the lives of its individuals lived in misery. No one knows where they are going, why they are going or what they will find when they get there.

The ending of the novel provides one of the most profound twists in SF.

[The Female Man]

26. SF Masterworks: The Female Man

Four women living in parallel worlds, each with a different gender landscape. When they begin to travel to each other's worlds each woman's preconceptions on gender and what it means to be a woman are challenged.

Acclaimed as one of the essential works of science fiction and an influence on William Gibson, The Female Man takes a look at gender roles in society and remains a work of great power.

[Helliconia: Hellonica Spring, Helliconia Summer, & Helliconia Winter]

25. SF Masterworks: Helliconia: Hellonica Spring, Helliconia Summer, & Helliconia Winter

Helliconia is a planet that, due to the massively eccentric orbit of its own sun around another star, experiences seasons that lasts eons. Whole civilisations grow in the Spring, flourish in the Summer and then die in the brutal winters. The human-like inhabitants have been profoundly changed by their experience of this harsh cycle.

In orbit above the planet a terran mission struggles to observe and understand the effects on society of such a massive climatic impact. Massive, thoroughly researched, minutely organised, full of action, pulp references and deep drama this is a classic trilogy.

[I Am Legend]

24. S.F. Masterworks: I Am Legend

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth, but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville's blood. By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.

How long can one man survive like this?

[Day Of The Triffids]

23. Day Of The Triffids

When Bill Masen wakes up blindfolded in hospital there is a bitter irony in his situation. Carefully removing his bandages, he realizes that he is the only person who can see: everyone else, doctors and patients alike, have been blinded by a meteor shower.

Now, with civilisation in chaos, the triffids - huge, venomous, large-rooted plants able to 'walk', feeding on human flesh - can have their day.

[War Of The Worlds]

22. War Of The Worlds

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking through the sky from Mars, a cylinder is discovered on Horsell Common in London. At first, naïve locals approach the cylinder armed just with a white flag – only to be quickly killed by an all-destroying heat-ray, as terrifying tentacled invaders emerge.

Soon the whole of human civilisation is under threat, as powerful Martians build gigantic killing machines, destroy all in their path with black gas and burning rays, and feast on the warm blood of trapped, still-living human prey.

The forces of the Earth, however, may prove harder to beat than they at first appear.

[The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress]

21. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Luna is an open penal colony and the regime is a harsh one. Not surprisingly, revolution against the hated authority is planned.

But the key figures in the revolt are an unlikely crew: Manuel Garcia OKelly, an engaging jack of all trades, the beautiful Wyoming Knott - and Mike, a lonely computer who likes to make up jokes.

[A Canticle For Leibowitz]

20. A Canticle For Leibowitz

The atomic Flame Deluge was over. The earth was dead. All knowledge was gone. In a hellish, barren desert, a humble monk unearthes a fragile link to a twentieth century civilization.

A hand-written document from the Blessed Saint Leibowitz reads: Pound pastrami can kraut six bagels - bring home for Emma.

[Ender's Game]

19. Ender's Game

Ender Wiggin is Battle School's latest recruit. His teachers reckon he could become a great leader. And they need one. A vast alien force is headed for Earth: its mission, the annihilation of all human life.

Ender could be our only hope. But first he must survive the most brutal military training programme in the galaxy.

[Snow Crash]

18. Snow Crash

The only relief from a sea of logos is within the well-guarded borders of the Burbclaves. Is it any wonder that most sane folks have forsaken the real world and chosen to live in the computer-generated universe of virtual reality?

In a major city, the size of a dozen Manhattans, is a domain of pleasures limited only by the imagination. But now a strange new computer virus called Snow Crash is striking down hackers everywhere, leaving an unlikely young man as humankind's last best hope.

[Foundation]

17. Foundation

All is not with the Galactic Empire. Its vast size is crippling to it. In particular, the administrative planet, honeycombed and tunneled with offices and staff, is vulnerable to attack or breakdown.

The only person willing to confront this imminent catastrophe is Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian and mathematician. Seldon can scientifically predict the future, and it doesn't look pretty: a new Dark Age is scheduled to send humanity into barbarism in 500 years. He concocts a scheme to save the knowledge of the race in an Encyclopedia Galactica.

But this project will take generations to complete, and who will take up the torch after him?

[The Stars My Destination]

16. S.F. Masterworks: The Stars My Destination

Gully Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class, unskilled space crewman. But right now he is the only survivor on his drifting, wrecked spaceship, and when another space vessel, the Vorga, ignores his distress flares and sails by, Gully becomes obsessed with revenge.

He endures 170 days alone in deep space before finding refuge on the Sargasso Asteroid and returning to Earth to track down the crew and owners of the Vorga. But, as he works out his murderous grudge, Gully Foyle also uncovers a secret of momentous proportions.

[Flowers For Algernon]

15. SF Masterworks: Flowers For Algernon

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone's jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius.

But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental tranformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

[Stand On Zanzibar]

14. SF Masterworks: Stand On Zanzibar

There are seven billion-plus humans crowding the surface of 21st century Earth. It is an age of intelligent computers, mass-market psychedelic drugs, politics conducted by assassination, scientists who burn incense to appease volcanoes.

All the hysteria of a dangerously overcrowded world, portrayed in a dazzlingly inventive style.

[Left Hand Of Darkness]

13. Left Hand Of Darkness

Winter is an Earth-like planet with two major differences: conditions are semi artic even at the warmest time of the year, and the inhabitants are all of the same sex.

Tucked away in a remote corner of the universe, they have no knowledge of space travel or of life beyond their own world. And when a strange envoy from space brings news of a vast coalition of planets which they are invited to join, he is met with fear, mistrust and disbelief.

[Babel 17]

12. S.F. Masterworks: Babel 17

In the far future, after human civilization has spread through the galaxy, communications begin to arrive in an apparently alien language. They appear to threaten invasion, but in order to counter the threat, the messages must first be understood.

[Ringworld]

11. Ringworld

Pierson's puppeteers, strange, three-legged, two-headed aliens, have discovered an immense structure in a hitherto unexplored part of the universe. Frightened of meeting the builders of such a structure, the puppeteers set about assembling a team consisting of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, an alien not unlike an eight-foot-tall, red-furred cat, to explore it.

The artefact is a vast circular ribbon of matter, some 180 million miles across, with a sun at its centre - the Ringworld.

But the expedition goes disastrously wrong when the ship crashlands and its motley crew faces a trek across thousands of miles of the Ringworld's surface.

[Timescape]

10. SF Masterworks: Timescape

1962: A young Californian scientist finds his experiments spoiled by mysterious interference.

Gradually his suspicions lead him to a shattering truth: scientists from the end of the century are using subatomic particles to send a message into the past, in the hope that history can be changed and a world-threatening catastrophe averted.

[Childhood's End]

9. Childhood's End

Earth has become a Utopia, guided by a strange unseen people from outer space whose staggering powers have eradicated war, cruelty, poverty and racial inequality. When the 'Overlords' finally reveal themselves, their horrific form makes little impression.

Then comes the sign that the Overlords have been waiting for. A child begins to dream strangely - and develops remarkable powers. Soon this happens to every child - and the truth of the Overlords' mission is finally revealed to the human race...

[The Man In The High Castle]

8. The Man In The High Castle

Imagine the world if the Allies had lost the Second World War - the African continent virtually wiped out, the Mediterranean drained to make farmland, the United States divided between the Japanese and the Nazis.

In the neutral zone that divides the rival superpowers in America lives the author of an underground best-seller. His book - a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing theoccupiers - offers an alternative theory of world history.

Does 'reality' lie with him, or is his world just one among many others?

[Gateway]

7. S.F. Masterworks: Gateway

Humans had discovered this artificial spaceport, full of working interstellar ships left behind by the mysterious, vanished Heechee. Their destinations are preprogrammed. They are easy to operate, but impossible to control.

Some came back with discoveries which made their intrepid pilots rich; others returned with their remains barely identifiable.

It was the ultimate game of Russian roulette, but in this resource-starved future there was no shortage of desperate volunteers.

[Dispossed]

6. SF Masterworks: Dispossed

The Principle of Simultaneity is a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize interstellar civilisation by making possible instantaneous communication. It is the life work of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the arid anarchist world of Anarres.

But Shevek's work is being stifled by jealous colleagues, so he travels to Anarres's sister-planet Urras, hoping to find more liberty and tolerance there. He soon finds himself being used as a pawn in a deadly political game.

[The Demolished Man]

5. SF Masterworks: The Demolished Man

In 2301 murder is virtually impossible, but one man is about to change that... Ben Reich, a psychopathic business magnate, has devised the ultimate scheme to eliminate the competition and destroy the order of his society.

The Demolished Man is a masterpiece of imaginative suspense, set in a superbly imagined world in which everything has changed except the ancient instinct for murder.

[Neuromancer]

4. Neuromancer

The Matrix unfolds like neon origami beneath clusters and constellations of data. Constructs, AIs, live here. Somewhere, concealed by ice, Neuromancer is evolving. As entropy goes into reverse, Molly's surgical implants broadcast trouble from the ferro-concrete geodesic of the Sprawl. Maelcum, Rastafarian in space, is her best hope of rescue.

But she and Case, computer cowboy, are busy stealing data from the almighty Megacorps. If the Megacorps don't get them both, perhaps Case will fall prey to the cheap treachery of Linda Lee, someone as lost as himself.

[Book Of The New Sun Book 1 & Shadow & Claw Book 1]

3. Fantasy Masterworks: Book Of The New Sun Book 1 & Shadow & Claw Book 1

An extraordinary epic, set a million years in the future, on an Earth transformed in mysterious and wondrous ways.

Severian, the central character, is a torturer, exiled from his guild after falling in love with one of his victims, and journeying to the distant city of Thrax, armed with his ancient executioner's sword, Terminus Est.

[The Forever War]

2. S.F. Masterworks: The Forever War

Private William Mandella is a reluctant hero in an interstellar war against an unknowable and unconquerable alien enemy, but his greatest test will be when he returns home.

Relativity means that for every few months' tour of duty, centuries have passed on Earth, isolating the combatants ever more from the world for whose future they are fighting.

[Dune]

1. Dune

The sweeping tale of the desert planet Arrakis, the focus of an intricate power struggle in a byzantine interstellar empire. Arrakis is the sole source of Melange, necessary for interstellar travel and also grants psychic powers and longevity, so whoever controls it wields great influence.

The struggle of Paul Atreides, usurped Duke, to regain his seat has severe repercussions. Paul might be the end product of a very long-term genetic experiment designed to breed a superhuman--he might be a Messiah.

Whatever happens, it will be felt throughout the Imperium.