The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster BujoldSeveral months ago, I asked readers of this blog to put forth their suggestions of ‘first-step’ Science Fiction novels, those books that they’d recommend to readers looking to explore the genre for the first time.

Glancing back at that post, and recently writing a review of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (which will be published tomorrow), I was reminded that my own experience with and knowledge of Science Fiction is sadly limited, despite my early love for the genre (I read a fair bit of Science Fiction as a child, but then I found The Hobbit and forgot about spaceships for many years.) To that end, I’ve decided that the second half of 2011 should be devoted to filling in some of those holes. Perusing that list, I’ve gone ahead and put together a selection of novels I hope to tackle over the next several months (just after I finish A Dance with Dragons, that Fantasy juggernaut). It looks thus:

  • The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold — Thanks to Baen’s Free Library (where many of Baen’s novels are available as free eBook downloads), I’ve recently come to own nearly every one of Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels. The Warrior’s Apprentice seems like the most likely place to start to explore Bujold’s Science Fiction, but there’s also Shards of Honor, which seems to use the same setting as the Vorkosigan novels, and was published first, but doesn’t feature the titular character. Decisions, decisions.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert — It’s, well… Dune. It’s a huge, gaping, ugly, embarrassing hole in my reading. What more is there to say?
  • Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin — Like Herbert, this is just an egregious omission. I love what I’ve read by Le Guin, I adore her posts on Book View Cafe, and, from everything I’ve read about it, The Left Hand of Darkness sounds like a wonderful journey.
  • The Forge of God by Greg Bear — I’m a sucker for first-contact stories and curious to see Bear’s solution to the Fermi paradox.
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson — Like first-contact novels, I’m also a huge fan of novels dealing with the human need to constantly expand and grow outside the boundaries of what we know. I loved Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin and am very curious to read a more in-depth exploration of how Earthlings might terraform and eventually thrive on Mars.

A few others on my list:

  • Light by M. John Harrison
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Embassytown by China Mieville

The purpose here is to feel more confident in my relationship with Science Fiction by the end of the year. As you can see, however, this list is chock full of doorstopper novels (Dune, Red Mars and Hyperion in particular), which isn’t very conducive to a quick exploration of the genre. I’d love to read some Peter F. Hamilton, for instance, but I could read several short novels in the time it takes me to read the three enormous volumes in The Night’s Dawn trilogy. So:

What have I missed? What Science Fiction novels or short stories do I need to read before the end of the year to consider myself a true fan of the genre?

And, also, which shorter SF novels or (even better) short fiction could I add to that list to fill in the gaps — books to fill in the gaps between the heftier tomes?

  • Matt July 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Short reads and classics – The Stars My Destination – by Alfred Bester, The War of the Worlds

    Iain M Bank’s The Player of Gamesisa good introduction to the world of the Culture

    Richard Morgan’s Altered carbon is a nice noir tale of body-swapping future mercenaries

  • D. D. Syrdal July 4, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Am horrified that no one has suggested any Bradbury (Martian Chronicles) or Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama). Where’s the Philip K. Dick? Dear Dawg, Blade Runner, people!

  • Val July 4, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Well, for short fiction I’d try Nancy Kress and Paolo Bacigalupi. A lot of Bacigalupi’s stuff can be read online (check his site for that) or alternatively you could try the collection Pump Six and Other Stories.

    I also like most of Nancy Kress’ short fiction. She’s published a number of collections as well, Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories comes to mind. Act One, a novella length work was recently published separately by Phoenix Picks. I liked that one a lot.

    Ted Chiang is also someone you don’t want to miss. He’s only released a dozen or so stories, none exceeding novella length, but when he writes something he makes it good. Stories of Your Life and Others is an excellent collection. A lot of these stories can be found online as well.

    I’m also very impressed by Ian McDonald’s recent novels. River of Gods is a big one (but very much worth reading) but Brasyl and The Dervish House are in the three-hundred-something page novels.

  • Adam Whitehead July 4, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Hmm. I’d also consider:

    NON-STOP by Brian W. Aldiss
    THE PLAYER OF GAMES by Iain M. Banks
    BLOOD MUSIC by Greg Bear (I’d rate this or EON over FORGE OF GOD)
    NIGHTFALL by Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg
    DYING INSIDE by Robert Silverberg
    FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov

    These have the benefit of all being rather short and are mostly considered classics (though people may suggest the short story, Asimov-solo version of NIGHTFALL as being better and punchier, but I don’t know any current anthologies that have it, whilst the novel-length version is easier to find).

    For more medium-sized books (say 400-600 pages) there’s also:

    STARTIDE RISING by David Brin
    DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis
    A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge
    RAFT by Stephen Baxter
    CLARKE COUNTY, SPACE by Allen Steele
    ALTERED CARBON by Richard Morgan
    CHASM CITY by Alastair Reynolds
    GRIDLINKED by Neal Asher
    MINDSTAR RISING by Peter F. Hamilton
    A SECOND CHANCE AT EDEN by Peter F. Hamilton

    MINDSTAR is the first in a trilogy of short (by Hamilton’s standards) novels about a near-future detective working in a post-apocalyptic Britain. EDEN is a short story collection set in the same universe as the mighty NIGHT’S DAWN TRILOGY; if you like it, I’d recommend reading the trilogy anyway. It may be huge, but it’s an easy read (or at least I found it so).

    I’d also look at GRRM’s SF short fiction in DREAMSONGS. Some of the short stories in there – WAY OF CROSS & DRAGON, SANDKINGS, A SONG FOR LYA, NIGHTFLYERS etc – are truly excellent.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 11:56 am

    @Matt — The Stars My Destination is a perfect suggestions. I’ll hunt it down (if I don’t own a copy). I’ve read Use of Weapons by Banks and wasn’t a fan; not sure I’m too interested in re-visiting the Culture books, though Player of Games is the one that interests me the most. Have read (and loved!) Altered Carbon; great suggestion!

    @DD — Rendezvous With Rama looks like a good choice. I’d meant to include some Clarke on my original list.

    @Val — I’m familiar with both Bacigalupi and Chiang’s work (and would heartily recommend both). I just discovered Kress the other day when listening to a podcast interview with her. Will definitely hunt down some of her short fiction. I’ve got a copy of The Dervish House at home; I’ve always been curious about McDonald.

    @Adam — I should’ve known you’d be right in here. I’ve read most of GRRM’s short fiction. Love it all.

    Re: Hamilton – I really want to read him, but I like to save big trilogies like that for travel or extended camping trips. I’ll get to it eventually!

    There a good amount of variety to your list, which I appreciate.

  • Doug M. July 4, 2011 at 11:57 am

    The way I understand it, the beauty of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books is that you can pick up any one of them and get a complete, largely self-contained story. So I wouldn’t worry too much about where to start. If you find you want to know every little detail about her Universe and Miles’s parents, you can always back up and fill in the gaps at your leisure.

    As for what you may have overlooked… I’m going to second the C. J. Cherryh that I saw mentioned above, and throw in Donaldson’s Gap Cycle (although you may have the same reaction that you did to his original Covenant trilogy).

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Ahh, shit. I hated Lord Foul’s Bane, but the Gap series was another one I’d planned to include on my list from the get-go. I own the whole set, too.

  • Ole Anders July 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I have read only four of the nine books you have listed, and Red Mars I just could not get into and did not get past 100 pages. I will second Bujold, though I would start at Shards of Honor, not so much because it is better than The Warrior’s Apprentice, but because you will end up wanting to read all of them so why not start at the beginning? Dune – and possibly Hyperion – are classics despite – or perhaps because – being fairly weird books, so you should probably try them even if you may not like them much.

    For other books your list seems devoid of British authors. Banks is certainly recommendable, perhaps Consider Phlebas or Excession, though all of the Culture books are worthwhile in their own way. Also Alistair Reynolds writes some very good gritty SF, Revelation Space is a good book to start with, but several of his stand alones are very good as well.

    Also I would very much recommend C.J. Cherryh Cyteen and Brin Startide Rising, being very good and also I think modern classics.

    Some not-deep-but-fun books I would recommend is David Weber’s On Basilisk Station (also available for free I think) and Walter Jon Williams’ (considerably better written) The Praxis.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    @Ole — Both Harrison and Mieville are British authors. So perhaps light on Brits. but not devoid.

    To everyone — For that matter, what are some recommendable SF novels/short fiction written by authors not of British/North American descent? I’ve got Rajaniemi at home, but beyond that I’m not sure where to go.

  • Doug M. July 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    You should still plan on reading Donaldson’s Gap series… especially if you have them all. There’ll be plenty of time to throw it under the bus if it doesn’t work for you. ;) I actually consider it Donaldson’s best writing.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    @Doug — I’ve heard a lot of people say that. I could recognize Donaldson’s strengths as a writer. I just didn’t connect to the Covenant books. The Gap books are definitely near the top of my list.

  • Adam Whitehead July 4, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Yeah, I absolutely hated LORD FOUL’S BANE, but I rank the GAP books very highly. In fact, they inspired GRRM’s ASoIaF chapter structure (they have the same thing of each chapter being headed by the character’s name, and each book introduces new POVs).

    Regarding Hamilton, the Greg Mandel books (MINDSTAR RISING being the first one) are a series of stand-alone detective stories set in futuristic Britain, and aren’t that long. That’s why I recced them ;-) You’re not trapped into reading the whole trilogy like his later works because they’re not a single story, just semi-stand-alones using a few recurring characters.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    @ Adam — Those sound perfect. I’ll take a look at them.

  • Daniel July 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” You’ve probably read it, but if not, I suggest you get your hands on the story.

  • Tyler July 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Short stories:
    I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
    The Last Question – Isaac Asimov
    The Star – Arthur C Clarke

    short books:
    Childhood’s end – Arthur C Clarke
    Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
    Gateway – Frederik Pohl
    Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
    Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke

    Longer Books that are fast reads:
    House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds

  • Nathan July 4, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Hey Aidan,

    I actually just finished Dune on Friday. Overall I found the story kind of dry and the central protagonist (Paul) hard to relate to. Hopefully you have better luck.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    @Nathan — Interesting. One of the reasons I think I’ve always put off getting into deeper into the Science Fiction classics is that I’m worried they won’t hold up nowadays. There’s a timelessness to Fantasy (probably because of the level of technology) that I’m worried the other half of the genre’s missing. I’d love to be proved wrong, though.

  • Marduk July 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I agree re the GAP cycle – phenomenal books and vastly different to his Covenant stories. Highly recommended

  • Derek July 4, 2011 at 5:57 pm


    I think an absolute essential read should be: The Forever War – Joe Haldeman.

    A few others to consider (sorry if some of these were mentioned in previous posts):
    Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
    Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
    Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds
    A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge

    I’m also a HUGE fan of Robert J. Sawyer and would recommend just about anything of his.

  • D. D. Syrdal July 4, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    For non-American or English, Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris” or “The Cyberiad”. Now that Scandinavian crime writers are in the spotlight, hopefully other genres from those countries will also see more popularity in the Engish-speaking world.

  • aidan July 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    @Derek — The Forever War is in my top ten favourite novels, so you’re definitely on the right track! Starship Troopers I was less fond of, however.

    A Fire Upon the Deep has shown up a few times now. Will definitely have to seek that one out.

    I’m noticing an abundance of male authors on these lists. Who are some of the best female SF authors outside of Le Guin and Norton?

  • Andrew Liptak July 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Ringworld, Niven
    Foundation, Asimov
    Ender’sGame, Card
    Neuromancer, Gibson
    River of Gods / Dervish House, MacDonald
    Coyote, Steele
    Warchild, Lowachee
    City of Pearl, Traviss

  • Andrew Liptak July 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Female authors: Margaret Atwood, Nancy Kress, Karin Lowachee, Elizabeth Moon, Karen Traviss, Connie Willis are all good reads.

  • Li July 4, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    I’ve only read The Destroyer of Worlds but I second Andrew Liptak’s suggestion with Niven’s Ringworld series. I also recently read Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky which was also very interesting (and quite accessible as a sci-fi read). I’ve only started making a dent in reading books from the sci-fi genre so I can’t make any suggestions for female sci-fi writers at the moment…

  • Kathleen July 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I am happy to see a few other mentions of my rec: STARTIDE RISING by David Brin
    it’s book 2 in the series, but a stand alone and I think it’s the best one. if you like it then you know to try the others. Also it is a super fast read and not a door stopper.

    I don’t have non-US/British suggestions which is sad. For women how about Octavia Butler? I haven’t seen her mentioned yet. or this is a nice list:

  • Mark July 5, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Aidan, I’d highly, highly recommend checking out something by Eric Brown, preferably his newest novel Kings of Eternity. It’s great stuff, not your normal SF and so easy to read. My book of the year as things stand at present (and I doubt it will be bettered).

    I’d also suggest The Skinner by Neal Asher, one of the Polity novels but easily readable as a stand alone – it’s the first in his Spatterjay series.

    One of my favourite finds of the previous few years have been the Isambard Smith books by Toby Frost, starting with Space Captain Smith. Comedy SF that is just hugely enjoyable, but very British!

    Of course, it goes without saying that I wholeheartedly agree with Adam on the Peter Hamilton recommendation (the Greg Mandel books are out in the states soon from Del Rey as an omnibus), but I’d also add Fallen Dragon (around 600 pages) as a superb novel, plus it’s stand-alone!

  • Alex July 5, 2011 at 4:32 am

    I strongly recommend “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

  • Joseph Garraty July 5, 2011 at 7:25 am

    Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, has my vote for one of the best sf novels of the last twenty years.

  • Patrick (YetiStomper) July 5, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I’m going to actually go a different route. Don’t start with “the classics”. While I love Dune and Ender’s Game is an absolute must read, many of these books are more than a little dated. It’s also worth mentioning that these authors weren’t exactly literary masters when the ideas were brand new. Science Fiction started out as a genre of ideas and while these books founded the genre we know and love today, many of the ideas are no longer as novel as they once were. If you want a history lesson, stick to these lists. If you want to get your feet wet, pick a few of these classic books (I’d recommend Ender’s Game and The Left Hand of Darkness for sure) and then move on to more modern works.

    One such work I’d recommend is a little known series that I found to be utterly unputdownable, a problem that was further exacerbated by the fact I was abroad in Mexico without the third book when I finished the first two. Give The Conqueror’s Trilogy by Timothy Zahn a try. It embodies everything that good science fiction (or at least space opera) should be.

  • Tom Swift July 5, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Not got a lot to say about Space Opera Science Fiction books (the last one I read was Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars Trilogy the other year) but isn’t that Charlie Sheen on the cover of the Warrior’s Apprentice?

    Oh, and the Heir to the Empire Trilogy was excellent, loved it :p

  • Hélène Blanchard July 5, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Do try Cherryh’s Chanur series. It’s fast, fun, breathless, no science but wonderful characters.

  • John July 5, 2011 at 10:15 am

    I would first recommend taking Red Mars off your list. It certainly is a classic, but it could quickly turn you off from SF. For me it was dry and long and a little dull. I recognize what an accomplishment it was, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable read.

    More suited to someone who likes fantasy and prefers to avoid novels that are too dense:
    Ender’s Game and
    Rendezous with Rama as several others have mentioned
    Asimov’s 4 Foundation novels as others have mentioned
    Dune — i think is very suited to someone who likes fantasy. it has a similar feel
    Hitchhiker’s Guide
    Something from Robert Heinlein
    Old Man’s War
    Gene Wolfe, the Shadow and the torturer

    i would also avoid War of the Worlds. it’s an amazing achievement for an 1890’s novel, but feels very dated today.

  • Thea July 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I have to agree with the Stephen Baxter rec – one of my favorite hard SF writers, period. RAFT is fantastic as is the rest of the Xeelee Sequence (I’m not finished with them yet, but so far loving the short stories and novels included), FLOOD and ARK are his most recent SF duology (FLOOD is ok, ARK is phenomenal), there’s the NASA trilogy, and, of course, the Time Odyssey series co-authored with Arthur C. Clarke. And, if you’re feeling steampunky SF, ANTI-ICE is wonderful as well.

  • Andrea K Host July 5, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Try Melissa Scott’s work for a female SF author. I liked the lighter “Trouble and Her Friends” (cyberpunkish), but she has an excellent range of novels and is an addictively good writer.

    If you’re going to read Norton, try “Sargasso of Space”. Norton’s work is very “sense of wonder”, and often quite straightforward space adventure, but her voice is so alien and unusual in those early novels that it’s worth sampling a couple. [I repeatedly read “Catseye” – it’s like visiting the past and the future all at once.]

  • Earnest July 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    You may want to also give the third and the fifth book in the Dune saga a read. For some reason quality always skips one book in Herbert’s… pentalogy? I’m totally objective in this, of course. Otherwise… I’m reading Stevenson’s Anathema at the moment; it seems a fascinating, yet “novoterminology”-heavy book which requires you to consult the glossary every five minutes in the beginning.

  • Ryan July 6, 2011 at 4:13 am

    You should the McMasters Bujold books with the Cordelia’s Honor omnibus, which I think starts with Shards of Honor. The omnibuses flow chronologically, and those books are truly my definition of excellent. If you question whether sci fi can have great characters, start with Bujold and you’ll be extremely pleased.

  • Kaitlyn Till July 6, 2011 at 8:55 pm

    Hey Aidan, I’m actually doing the same thing myself this year. I took VIU’s science fiction literature course last semester which had a reading list that was fairly hit and miss. We started with the “Time Machine” which I absolutely loved, and then we moved to “Solaris” which was also a great (and quick) read, same with “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. I’d say that those three are essential. We also read selections from an anthology called “The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories” which seems to have a good overview of the genre even though I haven’t finished it yet. I particularly enjoyed a story in there by Clifford D. Simak called “Desertion” and “Semley’s Necklace” by Ursula Le Guin, which I believe is also the prologue to a book that is in the same series as “The Left Hand of Darkness”. You might like this story because it’s a pretty seamless (and brilliant) blend of science fiction and fantasy. We also read “Idoru” by William Gibson, and “Look to Windward” by Iain M. Banks but both were incredibly confusing because, as it turned out, they were sequels and I don’t think I finished reading either…..Bank’s Culture especially made no sense reading it that way.

    Dan Simmons and the Hyperion Cantos is my obsession this summer—I’m on the final book. For me the series is second only to ASOIAF, and “Endymion” (Hyperion book three) is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I’d say the Hyperion Cantos the most essential of everything that has been listed.

    “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell is in my top ten books of any genre.

    For other easy short and essential reads, Card’s “Enders Game” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry I don’t think has been mentioned.

  • Biblibio July 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I’ll also second The Giver if you haven’t read that yet… a kids book, yes, but truly excellent. Same for Ender’s Game and a strong Dune recommendation as well – long a little dense, but completely worth it (the sequels aren’t that good… maybe the first two, but after that they’re pretty terrible…).

    As someone else on the lookout for good introductory reads to the sci-fi genre, this post (and the amazing comments) have been incredibly helpful… thanks!

  • JML August 17, 2011 at 4:32 am

    I think Dune is timeless. I re-read it every few years and each time I find something new. It’s consideration of politics, environmental issues, religion and human nature and strangely to a lesser degree technology (despite being sci-fi) is a unique achievement.

    Everyone mentions the Left hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin, however my favourite book by her is the Dispossed. It could be seen as dry, but I think it was written this way purposefully as a literary device.

    Other classics such as Ender’s game and Hyperion are recommended however Dune should be the first recommendation on any sci-fi list.