1. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
What list of great science fiction would be complete without paying some homage to the wise old grandfather of modern science fiction himself—Mr. Ray Bradbury? And while he may be more famous for his celebrated dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 or his collections of short fiction, in this editor’s opinion, The Martian Chronicles is Bradbury’s best work of “pure” science fiction. Dealing exclusively with mankind’s repeated attempts to colonize the planet Mars, this volume of interconnected short stories details the human cost of space travel, as well as the psychological effects of a truly alien landscape, in extraordinary fashion.
2. Dune by Frank Herbert
Widely considered to be one of the most influential works of science fiction ever written, Dune transcends the formula of the hero’s journey to become a sort of “thinking man’s space opera.” Set on the ever-shifting desert planet of Arrakis, valued throughout known space for its vast stores of a priceless spice, Dune raises questions of colonialism, religion, destiny, and honor—all while telling a swashbuckling, all-guns-blazing action-adventure story. With a cast of unforgettable characters, an immaculately detailed world, and the addition of the terrifying Sandworms into the pantheon of great science fiction monsters, Dune is a story not easily laid aside—or easily forgotten.
3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
We’ve discussed this novel at length on this site before, but it’s worth repeating that Card’s thoughtful musings on jingoism, military overreach, and the treatment of gifted children seem to become only more relevant as the years pass. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of the most compelling child protagonists in the whole of science fiction literature, the rare boy genius whose intelligence rests in brilliant strategy and cunning application of military force, rather the inventors and gadgeteers of the “boy and his robot” stories of old. And the twist at the end of the novel has a Machiavellian brilliance to it, serving to remind we readers just how young and helpless our hero really is—and how even his great brain cannot always protect him from the brutality of the adult world.
4. The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
Jenna Fox is a more small-scale science fiction story than the others on this list, something closer to Black Mirror than Star Wars. It’s a character study of 17-year-old Jenna Fox who nearly died in a car accident but was brought back from the brink by her scientist parents using experimental (and potentially illegal) treatments. Jenna wakes up a year after her accident in a new-and-improved body—and with a new-and-improved mind to match. The novel explores ideas of self-image, the existence of the soul, and physical and mental autonomy—but perhaps the biggest and somehow scariest question it asks is, “How far should a parent go to protect their child?”
5. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
On the surface, Westerfeld’s Leviathan—as well as its two sequel novels—might not seem particularly ambitious compared to the other literary titans listed here today. The book makes no grand pronouncements about the human condition, has no insight about the evils that have plagued mankind since time immemorial…but to judge Leviathan on these terms alone would be a great disservice to what Westerfeld has achieved here: a high-concept, high-octane adventure in a brilliantly realized alternate history where World War I was fought entirely by rival schools of mad science. While the stuffy Darwinists use bio-engineered megafauna as weapons and vehicles, the Germanic Clankers rely solely on steam-powered technological terrors to fight their war. Brimming with seemingly unlimited imagination, colorful characters, and some of the most thrilling wartime action sequences ever committed to print, Leviathan is a steampunk tour de force, and just a peck of fun besides.
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