Five of the Best Sci-Fi Novels I’ve Read Lately

snow crash3

I’m not sure which came first, the decision to publish my book on a Kindle, or me actually buying a Kindle in the first place. But the two became intimately tied together soon enough as I learned that the best way to stay motivated to write and become a better writer is to read a lot. And when I got that Kindle? Where you can buy and open a book by pressing two buttons in five seconds? Boy, did I ever start reading.

Outside of George RR Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series, and a few Lee Childs and James Patterson crime novels, I’ve mostly stuck with sci-fi. I’ve realized that while I’ve watched boatloads of sci-fi movies and shows, including nearly all that would be considered “classics” of the genre, I was way, way behind when it came to science fiction literature. That is a problem, considering I was trying to write science fiction literature.

I hunted through the internet, asked readers and found many, many books I still needed to get through, and over the past two years or so, I’ve wolfed down Asimov and Card and many others. I decided to highlight a few of my favorites, so that perhaps some of you may get to experience them as well.

First, the grand total list. Here’s every sci-fi book I’ve read on my Kindle (a device which makes this easy to keep track of). I list these not to brag, but so you can give me other suggestions of books I still have yet to read.

Hyperion, Foundation, The Road, I Robot, World War Z, Ender’s Game, Ready Player One, The Hunger Games Trilogy, Neverwhere, The Forever War, Under the Dome, Solaris, Altered Carbon, Old Man’s War, Unwind, Hyperion, Snow Crash, Earth Abides, and Spin

Tried and couldn’t do it: Neuromancer and Anathem

I’ve bolded the ones I’m about to talk about.

Hyperion (Dan Simmons)

hyperion

This was recommended so many places by so many people it was hard to keep track. It has a unique narrative structure, a tale of seven pilgrims on a ship, each with their own story as to why they’re traveling to a particular shared interstellar destination.

This book taught me a lot about how to write for different characters. Each traveler gets their own tale, and they’re all dramatically different to the point where the book almost feels like a collection of short stories. You develop your favorites, and begin to suspect the motives of the others as you learn more about the group as a whole.

Hyperion also introduced me to the concept of a truly terrifying villain. The Shrike was mysterious, deadly and pure terror across every story it appeared in. It was also an object of worship, and out of all these books, was one of the most effective creations I’ve come across.

I need to continue reading this series, but the original Hyperion is a classic for a reason, and I learned a lot from it.

World War Z (Max Brooks)

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Perhaps this is a little too “mainstream,” but I was late to the party discovering World War Z. Yes, I did read it ahead of the movie coming out, and yes, the digital cover has Brad Pitt’s stupid face on it. Shame on me.

It’s true that the movie and the book are nothing alike. I actually liked the movie for what it was, and the reality is that the book would have been more or less impossible to film because of its narrative structure. It’s told in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, not in the heat of it, and tells dozens of individual stories focused on each aspect of the great zombie war from first infection, to global destruction, to the clean-up afterward.

World War Z has one of the most unique story structures I’ve ever seen, and it’s amazing that this many impactful tales are packed into only a few pages each. It’s amazing what the book is able to do with an almost complete lack of recurring characters, and I was further impressed with how seriously it took its subject matter.

A zombie invasion is an inherently goofy concept, but World War Z manages to effectively ask and answer detailed questions about the sociology, politics, sciences, logistics and religious aspects of such an event happening. It’s the most authentic vision of a world ravaged by zombies I’ve ever seen by a mile, and it’s a truly stunning work.

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan)

altered carbon

Some books had concepts that were so fantastic, they sold me on them immediately even if I had almost no other information. Altered Carbon envisions a world where nobody really dies, as consciousness can be transferred from body to body indefinitely.

The lead of this book, Takeshi Kovacs, was so cool, I named one of my characters in my sequel as an homage to him. He’s a veteran of wearing new bodies, called “sleeves” and is brought in to solve the murder of a wealthy, powerful man who is very much alive, thanks to consciousness transfer, but wants to know why someone would kill his old sleeve.

Altered Carbon goes amazing places with this concept, as some sleeves are modded out for combat, some are laced with pheromones for sex appeal, and other times people can actually jump around between genders. The writing is phenomenal and Kovacs is probably my favorite protagonist from any of these books I’ve read, despite rarely, if ever, occupying his original body. It speaks to the power of a strong character, when he can take any form and still be a supreme badass.

Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)

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Snow Crash takes place almost largely in the digital world, and stars my second favorite protagonist out of all these books, a man literally named Hiro Protagonist. If that’s not a good start, I don’t know what is.

This is a future I’ve long envisioned, one where virtual reality has transported a huge portion of the population to a sort of parallel life online, called the Metaverse. Action takes place between the Metaverse and reality, with major twists and turns occurring in both realms.

The titular Snow Crash is a virus that spreads through the Metaverse, but can have a real-life impact on those who contract it. Hiro must stop the virus, and is aided by a spunky young courier named Y.T. who manages against all odds to be a likable child side-kick, as such things rarely exist.

While a book like Ready Player One was all video games, Snow Crash blends both the virtual and real worlds in a fresh and exciting way, and manages to be quite oddly funny in the process. It’s one of my new era favorites, though I was puzzled by the fact I couldn’t get even partway through Stephenson’s Anathem, which is shockingly different in style, tone and content than Snow Crash. Someone’s going to have to explain the appeal of that book to me.

Earth Abides (George R. Stewart)

earth abides

I had no idea that post-apocalyptic fiction existed in 1949, but that’s when Earth Abides was written, and is said to be the grandfather of all works in the genre. I knew I had to read it if the end of the world was the basis for my trilogy.

What I found was a book that does feel very ahead of its time, yet puts a spin on the apocalypse that I really haven’t seen since. While most stories set after the end of the world are all about doom and gloom, Earth Abides focuses on the rebuilding effort. A simple plague wipes out 99.999% of the world’s population, and the story tells how one man, Ish, tries to rebuild society from the fragments of the people who are left.

The story spans practically his entire life, he’s a young man at the start and ancient by the end. He has a family, starts a little tribe with some neighbors, and attempts to keep the knowledge of the old world alive. He tries to teach the children born into the new landscape mathematics, history and the like, but ultimately comes to the realization that society simply needs to start over. His greatest contribution ends up being teaching his descendents how to make a bow and arrow, an ancient invention that changed the course of history once, and could again.

It’s an almost uplifting look at the end of the world, and something I wasn’t expecting. Certainly not from a book so old. But good literature knows no expiration date, and what may be the world’s first post-apocalyptic novel is still one of its best.

So, more suggestions for me?

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23 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading quite a bit of sci-fi this year in the form of a Nook download that gave me like 60 novels and novellas for $3 and includes a lot of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, not to mention all of the John Carter novels (which I have not read yet). It had some pretty cool little gems in it like Deathworld that was almost certainly an influence on Avatar and Philip K. Dick’s The Skull. I love these public domain classics that you can get for practically nothing.

  2. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (highly recommend for fans of PKD and hard SF fans in general)

    The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (highly recommend for something a lot easier to read than hard SF (does that make it “soft” SF?) and for fans of quirky, light-hearted stories. Vonnegut is one of the best story tellers to have ever lived in my opinion.)

    The Explorer by James Smythe (somewhat recommended. Some pretty cool ideas in this one and it captures a feeling of isolation very well in my opinion. It does get a tad repetitive, but the repetitiveness is necessary for the plot to move forward and overall isn’t really that big of a deal.)

  3. China Mieville “The City & The City”

    Andreas Eschbach “The Carpet Makers” (But, seriously, just read it and try not to read too much about it beforehand)

    Ernie Cline “Ready Player One”

    Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game” (Even though the author is a dick.)

    And there are some books by a certain Paul Tassi. 😉
    Seriously, I really liked your books, Paul. When can we expect the third one? And will it be finished with the trilogy?

  4. Guess I should have looked closer, since you already have “Ready Player One” and “Ender’s Game”.

    Another suggestion:
    Max Barry “Jennifer Government”

  5. While I am interested in new book suggestions, I am far more interested in knowing where in the seven hells you find the time to read all these books??

  6. I assume as you didn’t choose to highlight it that you weren’t blown away by Ender’s Game, but I would recommend checking out the rest of the series. The original sequels (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind) are very different in tone but tell quite poignant stories. (The gap between them and Ender’s Game is bridged somewhat in both chronology and tone by “Ender in Exile”) The Shadow Books, beginning with Ender’s Shadow and continuing on, tell the story from the perspective of Bean, and follow the events as they unfold on Earth after Ender has left. I thoroughly enjoy this entire literary universe and periodically re-read the entire thing.

  7. Many years ago I read an already old paperback and have been unable to remember the title or author. It was a post nuclear war survive & rebuild society story. It took place in Spain in a winery. Any ideas?

    Good article Paul. I completely agree on World War Z. I love how serious Brooks took the subject matter and the international scope of the story. I enjoyed the movie too. The sequence in Israel alone is worth the price of admission.

  8. Good call on Hyperion! I dug into that setting about a year ago and didn’t regret it. 100% agree with you, especially pertaining to the Shrike.

    Have you read any of Peter F. Hamilton’s sci-fi?

    I’ve been reading for the better part of my life, and his stories still blow me away. (I think I’ve read each of them at least 3 times) The Commonwealth series kicks off with two rather large books (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), both of which I found incredibly engrossing. He further explores the universe he sets up in those two books with the Void trilogy, also incredible.

    His Night’s Dawn trilogy is also absolutely amazing.

    I admit, some people complain that his narratives take a little while to pick up speed, and I can see where they’re coming from, but I find the pacing to be perfect. Another common complaint is his tendency to over-explain settings and history, but again, I find his exposition to be fulfilling and interesting. Different strokes, I suppose.

    Anyway, if you find the time to read either Pandora’s Star or The Reality Dysfunction, I think you’d enjoy them!

  9. I can’t believe you’ve tried Neuromancer & given up on it! Especially if you read & like Snowcrash, which is really just Stephenson’s update of Gibson’s groundbreaking novel! From the opening sentence in ‘Chiba City Blues’ to the end, I have been mesmerized by Gibson’s visions of a dystopian future.

    Definitely my favorite book of all!

  10. Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. If you like apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction you need to read this.

    Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. One of the first nuclear war novels. I read this at the same time I read Earth Abides and although I liked them both I liked Alas, Babylon better I think.

    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. One of the classics of Sci Fi.

  11. If you haven’t already scoped it out, definitely try “1984” and “To Outlive Eternity.” Pretty much anything by Arthur C. Clarke, too. Especially 2001.

  12. When it comes to Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle collaborations you’d be remiss to not read “The mote in God’s Eye” 😉

    Footfall is another one from them that is pretty good, but “The mote in God’s Eye” is definitely the cream of the crop from them, imo.

  13. Anything by China Mieville, although he generally isn’t straight up sci-fi, more of a blend of genres. His works remind me of Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. I particularly enjoyed Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Some of his other novels (Iron Council and The City & the City) have strong political messages as well.

  14. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, the other, later Foundation novels, Nightfall and Nemesis (both by Isaac Asimov), Dune, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber (the first two of like seventeen are free on Kindle!), and the Princess of Mars (Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is free). And you haven’t even scratched the surface of fantasy yet, my preferred genre.

  15. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is pretty great, and his more recent novel “11/22/63” about time travel and the Kennedy assassination was really hard for me to put down.

    Liminal States by Zack Parsons was pretty wild, and goes from western to detective noir to future dystopia.

    Tad Williams’ Otherland series was pretty interesting, but like his other series it takes a bit to get going on it… still not as hard a read as William Gibson, who really is worth taking a second stab at the Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer/Count Zero/Mona Lisa Overdrive) or you could start with his short story collection Burning Chrome.

  16. I enjoyed Snow Crash, but thought the last 1/3 was not as thought provoking as the lead up. I was a bit disappointed that it just settled it all with an action movie at the end.

    I would like to offer The Childe Cycle series by Gordon R. Dickson, starting with Necromancer, The Tactics of Mistake (my favorite of the entire series), and Dorsai! The writing isn’t incredible, but the themes and ideas of the series are hands down my favorite of any scifi genre.

  17. Good call on Hyperion! That and it’s sequel are still amongst my favorite books (not so much the Endyminion follow-ups). Max Brooks World War Z though awesome was a no-brainer…everybody I know who has read it loved it. Recomendations? I’ll third the suggestion for Hamilton’s Pandora Star and Judas Unchained. The Nightworld series kind of became a chore to read after awhile. Two of my newer favorite books are John Dies At The End and This Book Is Full Of Spiders both by Cracked.com’s David Wong. The plots for both are insane but the narrative totally makes them both totally worthwhile. Finally I just discovered the Ex-Heroes series by Peter Clines. Superheroes vs zombies: Nuff’ said!

  18. Armor by John Steakley is fantastic. Not very well known, and criminally underappreciated; it’s every bit as good as Ender’s Game in my opinion, though they’re fairly different stories. I seem to recall it getting a mention in a foreward for Ender’s Game actually. Anyways, well worth the read.

  19. I’m normally more partial to contemporary fiction, but I have enjoyed a few brief forays into science fiction novels. Particularly the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, which have made me swear off most other zombie stories because outside this book, there aren’t as many well-researched and plausible-sounding viruses out there.

  20. I liked Altered Carbon, but didn’t think it was anything special. The author seemed to be trying too hard at saying how deadly and dangerous Takeshi Kovacs was.
    I really have to read Hyperion, I’ve been looking for it for years.

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