From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

The list of my ten favorite fantasy novels has been one of the most popular posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, so I thought it was time for my ten favorite science fiction novels. As with the fantasy list, this is presented in no particular order. It was hard enough limiting the list just to ten, ranking them would have been too much for me. That having been said, I begin with what I think is the greatest science fiction novel ever written . . .

Dune by Frank Herbert

Paul, young heir to the Atreides dukedom, joins his family as one of the new masters of the desert planet Arakis. Arakis is the sole source of the spice melange, a naturally-occurring drug that produces strange psychic visions, and eventually physical mutations, in people who take it—including the Spacing Guild’s mysterious Navigators. Melange is the secret to the star-spanning empire’s faster-than-light travel, making it the most valuable commodity in the universe—a commodity the diabolical Baron Harkonnen is willing to kill to control.

This is the edition I first read, when I was in junior high.

Dune was the first novel to win the fledgling Nebula Award. Originally presented in serialized form in Analog magazine beginning in 1963, it was published in book form in 1965 and was an instant classic. This is science fiction at its absolute best. Dune is as politically and socially relevant as Orwell’s 1984, but is still an edge-of-your-seat space opera with huge monster sandworms, deadly desert natives, and one of SF’s most gleefully twisted villains. It’s a story rich in invented tradition, presenting a far-future world as richly realized as Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Massive, dense, but never tiresome, Dune is a master’s class in worldbuilding, plot, and character, and Herbert deftly juggles galaxy-spanning political intrigue with deeply personal stories of love, loyalty, and honor. It’s hardly difficult to grasp that Dune’s melange is a thinly-veiled metaphor for oil, but the book’s lasting message of political and ecological responsibility in the management of a single resource economy has never been more relevant.

If only we could have heeded its warnings 45 years ago. . . .


Neuromancer by William Gibson

Case is a street-smart hacker who gets in way over his head, stuck between what ends up being worse than a rock and a hard place. Case is stuck between two AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer, and he’ll need every cyber-enhanced turn of luck to come out alive.

Cyberpunk is born.

This was the book that revitalized science fiction and made “cyberpunk” the subgenre of the eighties. Neuromancer has everything we read science fiction for: action, cutting edge tech, bold new ideas, and a glimpse into a fully realized and believable future. Though a few bits might end up seeming dated if you read it now—there seems to still be a Soviet Union, for instance, and no one has a cell phone—but in other respects it was shockingly prescient. Gibson is a master storyteller who was surely more informed by the sort of espionage thriller that was popular at the time than he is by other science fiction. The story begins with widely disparate storylines that seem to have little or nothing to do with each other, but it all comes together in the end in satisfying and surprising ways. This is one of those books I wish I could read—no, devour—again for the first time.


Gateway by Frederik Pohl

A collection of alien spacecraft is found hidden in caves carved into an asteroid. What soon becomes known as Gateway must have been some sort of starport for the long-lost aliens, the Heechee. The starships still work, but the problem is, no one has been able to figure out the Heechee’s navigation system. Robinette Broadhead escapes an impoverished Earth and comes to Gateway, like thousand of others, to take his turn as a prospector. All you do is get into one of these ancient starships, turn it on, and end up . . . ?

I have a signed copy at home, one of my most prized possessions.

It’s a very rare thing that cover copy makes me buy a book I otherwise have never heard of, but Gateway was one of those books. I found the basic concept utterly irresistible, and the book delivered on every level.

Pohl is a grandmaster who may be the best ever at balancing hard SF and soft SF. Though Gateway is as “high concept” as science fiction gets, we experience that grand idea through the eyes of a flawed and regretful hero driven as much by desperation as by a drive to explore.


The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey

The story of a boy and his robot. Paul’s family is moving from one of Jupiter’s moons back to Earth, and Paul is excited to go—until he finds out that he’ll have to leave Rex, his domestic robot, behind. And no way will Paul—or Rex—let that happen!

All this for only sixty cents.

Like many SF fans of a certain age, I discovered this book at an early-1970s Scholastic Book Fair, plopped down my 60 cents, and ran home to read what promised to be a fun space adventure. The Runaway Robot ended up being exactly that and more. I was probably eight years old when I read this book, and like most eight year olds I suffered from a  blazingly short attention span. Rarely did I read books all the way through, but this one got me from the first chapter and did not let go. I have very few vivid memories of my early childhood, but I can still feel the living room couch under me as I lay on my back reading this book. And there was at least one scene in the end that made me cry.

Yes, I cried.

Only just now as I was poking around the internet researching this book did I find that Lester del Rey really only wrote the outline, and the book was actually ghostwritten by Paul W. Fairman. Whoever wrote it, thank you for getting this one young SF fan to sit down and read a book all the way through. It wasn’t the last.

UPDATE (2/16/11): A few months ago, purely by chance, I ran across a copy of The Runaway Robot at a local used book store. I think I paid $4.00 for it. I would have paid $1000. It was like buying my innocence back.

The Essential Ellison by Harlan Ellison

My idol.

My idol.

No synopsis for this one, which is not a novel but a massive collection of short stories by the master of the form. Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” is the one that made me want to be a writer, and the one that made me want to read every word this mad genius ever put down on paper. I haven’t managed to do that yet, but this collection is a great place to start. Herein lie some forgotten gems along with the classics.

If you’ve never read Harlan Ellison, what in the name of all that’s holy are you waiting for? The short story is an art form all its own, and Harlan Ellison is nothing short of the greatest living practitioner of the craft. If you don’t have The Essential Ellison in your library, may God have mercy on your wretched soul.


The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

In the far future, renegade mathematician Hari Seldon creates the new science of psychohistory, a series of formulas that allow him to predict the downfall of the Galactic Empire. In an effort to preserve human culture, Seldon establishes two Foundations, located on remote planets at opposite ends of the galaxy. There work begins on the Encyclopedia Galactica—a repository of all human knowledge—a bulwark against a new dark age only Seldon can see approaching.

This is the cover of the book club edition I first read in the 70s.

Who but Isaac Asimov could envision a galaxy-spanning space opera classic who’s hero is a renegade mathematician? And he did it with considerable skill. Though maybe a bit lighter on the character side than the other books on this list, the Foundation Trilogy is an undisputed classic of the genre. The trilogy was originally published as three separate books: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953), but it’ll be easy to find in omnibus form and like The Lord of the Rings, there’s no sense in reading any of them unless you read all three in order.

The Foundation Trilogy may feel a bit old school to contemporary readers—even in the seventies I found Asimov’s use of the word “atomic” irresistibly quaint—but it represents the highest achievement of mid-century SF: a smart, richly realized treatise on mass psychology way before that sort of thinking was en vogue, and at a time when popular conceptions of SF were second-rate B movies and anti-communist paranoia pieces.


Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Kris Kelvin has travelled to the planet Solaris on a last-ditch rescue mission. The space station set up there is in danger of being abandoned, and the crew seems to have come unhinged. After years of study, no one has any idea what’s happening on the surface of Solaris. Is the entire planet alive? Does it have a mind? But when Solaris reaches out to the small crew of human observers, they’re confronted with a sentience so alien and unknowable it will drive them mad.

The most alien alien.

It’s almost as impossible to put into words how amazing this book is as it is for the scientists studying Solaris to understand the living planet below them. Novels in which it’s plain the author knows something we readers don’t can be irritating, but only Polish expatriate Stanislaw Lem has been able to write a novel in which it’s plain that he doesn’t understand what’s happening either.

No alien has ever been as truly alien as Solaris, and in that way this is one of the most authentic works of science fiction ever written. I can’t help thinking that when we do meet another intelligence, somewhere out there in the endless expanse of the cosmos, it will be as unknowable and outré as Solaris. That thought sometimes gives me nightmares.


The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton

Dangerous criminal Harry Benson experiences seizures that cause him to commit acts of violence. Enter neuropsychiatrist Dr. Roger McPherson. McPherson has a new cure in mind: electrodes surgically implanted in Benson’s brain that stimulate his pleasure centers, curing the seizures. But Benson soon learns to manipulate the electrodes, self-medicating until everything goes terribly wrong.

Plug it, turn on, go nuts.

Akin to it’s more famous contemporary, Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, The Terminal Man adds a layer of thriller to the story of a high-tech medical cure gone wrong. Crichton was his generation’s James Patterson, a master of the mass market page-turner, and this early work is a fine example of his skill with a plot twist. But there’s more. Crichton, a medical doctor himself, suffuses the action with plausible science, and couples that with a deft touch for human relationships—and human desires—that fully enrich what in lesser hands might have been a forgettable medical thriller. I read it decades ago, but The Terminal Man remains my favorite contemporary science fiction novel, realistic but still cutting edge.

Lucky Starr (series) by Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French)

As with The Essential Ellison, I’ll forgo a synopsis for this one, since I’m including it as a series, not just one book. True, Dune and Gateway touched off series as well, as did the Foundation Trilogy, but hey, this is my favorites list. You set the rules for yours!

Oh, my God, I forgot the dog.

Oh, my God, I forgot the dog.

Isaac Asimov, using the pen name Paul French, wrote six Lucky Starr adventures in all: David Starr, Space Ranger (1952), Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953), Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (1954), Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956), Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957), and Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958).

The pen name was no doubt concocted to give Asimov a separate identity as an author of books for young readers, so as not to confuse fans of his Foundation Trilogy, which was being released around the same time. Authors still do this sort of thing today, and like Asimov, the successful ones are eventually “outed.” By the time I discovered this series—maybe a year or two after The Runaway Robot—they were being re-sold with Asimov’s name primary on the cover.

Okay, talk about dated. The title Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus should be a dead giveaway. A bit less concerned with cutting edge science as Asimov’s other books, Lucky Starr was all about action and adventure in what was the best guess for the solar system in the early to mid fifties. I’m not sure if someone as smart as Isaac Asimov knew, in 1954, that the surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead, making a liquid ocean utterly impossible, but I honestly didn’t care when I first read these slim little books, and I don’t care now. If you long for the days when science fiction was just pure, unadulterated fun, Lucky Starr, Space Ranger, is your man. Seriously, how do you pass up the story of a Space Ranger facing off against the Pirates of the Asteroids? This is just geek love, man.



The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

A Victorian gentleman invents a machine that allows him to travel through time. Longing for a view of some faraway utopia, he flings himself into a future he finds remarkable—and horrifying. He sees huge wars waged with flying machines, cities and civilizations torn asunder, but still he barrels on, ending up in the year 802,700 AD. Human civilization has been reduced to a childlike race called the Eloi, and at first our hero seems to have discovered his futuristic utopia, but when the underground Morlocks—descendants of the men and women who hid from the wars in underground bunkers—show their terrifying faces, this gentleman out of time is confronted with cannibalism and slavery, the final result of all man’s grand achievements.

I’m pretty sure I bought a copy that looked just like this at a Scholastic Book Fair.

Boy, when you put it like that . . .

There’s no doubt that The Time Machine is a classic of the genre, but what makes it one of my favorites is its joyful readability. At its heart it’s a carefully realized morality play, a warning of the coming horrors of industrial era warfare, but like Dune that message is lovingly wrapped in a highly entertaining adventure story.

The book is considered one of the prophetic gems of the early science fiction genre, and with good reason, though I think some people believe it was written earlier than it was. By 1895 there was quite a bit of talk of flying machines (though the actual invention was still eight years away) and the contemporary and potential horrors of the industrial revolution were being discussed around the world, but still Wells pulled all those conversations together into one very simple message: Be careful what you wish for.

And those six little words may just define the whole genre.

—Philip Athans


Where Story Meets World™

Look to Athans & Associates Creative Consulting for story/line/developmental editing at 3¢ per word.





About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Robert Fleck says:

    “Crichton was his generation’s James Patterson”

    Umm, you do realize that Michael Crichton was only 7 or 8 years older than James Patterson. He just started having bestsellers younger (around the time he finished medical school and residency).


    • Philip Athans says:

      Yeah, Patterson got rich in TV first then switched to books, Crichton went the other way around: The Terminal Man then ER.

  2. LouW says:

    I read all of them except for Runaway Robot. Every time I tried to order this through Scholastic’s book club in school, it was out of stock and I received a refund! And I always wanted to read it, also!

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  4. I agree that “Dune” is one of the best in science fiction. And anything written by Isaac Asimov or H.G. Wells is a classic. There is one that is no longer mentioned. It is 1984. The time of the book is past, but it was a classic at the time. I remember that I couldn’t put the book down until I had finished it. It will alway be one of my favorites. I have only writen one science fiction novel. It is “A Different Time A Different Earth.” Most of my work is in adventure novels.


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  10. a4ism says:

    What an excellent list and commentary, starting with my favorite work of fiction (Dune) and one that changed the way I viewed my computer activities in the late 80’s (Neuromancer). I score about 50% on the others, so I am going to fill in the gaps in the coming year. Thank you!

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