Science fiction and fantasy offer a rich heritage of great books – but this abundant pile of reading material can also be daunting. So sometimes it’s easier to pretend. We asked some of our favorite writers, and they told us the 10 classic books everyone claims to have read, and why you should read them.
From Asimov to Pynchon, science fiction contains fantastic and ambitious works of genre fiction. But many of us are overwhelmed. And it’s not that hard to fake a first-hand knowledge of these books, because they’re everywhere, and we’ve heard people talk about them so many times. We SF fans are good at pretending. But these books are classics for a reason – and they’re worth reading.
Classic sci-fi books you should read
1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
“It’s so long and so dense. It’s almost 1000 pages, and they are big pages. It must contain half a million words,” says Charles Yu, author of the collection of stories Sorry Please Thank You: Stories.
He adds: “So much information. It’s a fact: a copy of Cryptonomicon has more information per unit volume than any other object in this universe. Any place where a copy of the book exists is, at that time, the most information-rich region of spacetime in the universe. If you drop a cardboard Cryptonomicon paperbacks in a black hole of any size, the black hole doubles in size. That’s right, I asked Stephen Hawking. You get my drift.
This is the infodump of all infodumps, and I mean that as a very high form of praise, because it’s great information, and the dump is so well done. It’s so much fun! Everyone raves about it and loves it — and yet I don’t hear much about it. Maybe I’m traveling in the wrong circles.
It’s just one of those books that you could put on your Before I Die reading list, and then it’ll be there the day you die, and you’ll be like, “Oh fuck, I forgot to read all of them. these great books. “Don’t let this happen to you! Read this book! Your brain will fill with information. A person who has recently read Cryptonomicon is temporarily the smartest person on Earth. That’s a fact.”
2. Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s hard to believe that people haven’t actually read this book — but Pat Cadigan, author of Synners, Dervish is digital and many other books, she says thinks a lot of people “probably think they’ve had the Dunes Syfy movie or miniseries experience.
Also, many people “read around” Dunes, reading the prequels and sequels, but never actually delving into the original book. “It’s not an easy read,” says Cadigan, because it’s both dense and complex. But if you’ve only read the other books or seen the adaptations of this masterpiece, you haven’t gotten the right one. Dunes live. It’s a “totally immersive experience that must be read to be fully appreciated,” says Cadigan.
3. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow
It’s a bit strange. Many authors we contacted for this article named The Gravity Rainbow immediately like the book everyone claims to have read – but then they all admit they too haven’t actually read it. “I don’t believe anyone has actually finished The Gravity Rainbow. Thomas Pynchon spent decades waiting for his audience to laugh at that cool twist at the end, and now they’re starting to wonder. I’ve started it five times,” says comic book writer Paul Cornell. This damn group and the shadow font series of books.
So why should you read The Gravity Rainbow where some of the coolest genre writers have failed? Several people said they found the parts they got through extremely rewarding.
More Pat Murphy, author of The city shortly after and wild girlsgives a few reasons: “It’s science fiction compared to James Joyce, who was a Pulitzer contender, it’s twisted and difficult and transgressive and regressive and digressive.
It won the National Book Award when it came out in 1974, and Professor Irwin Corey accepted on Pynchon’s behalf. Additionally, she loves the idea of combining transgressive sexuality and the V2 rocket ship program: “I love my sense of the book and its potential to wreak havoc on the psyche of the world.” Maybe she’ll even finish it one day – or maybe she’ll just cling to her own imaginary version of this book.
4. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Cornell makes a bold claim: “With chaos theory having destroyed psychohistory, and novels based on this big idea, Foundation is becoming the kind of classic we talk about rather than read. Asimov’s robot stories, however, “might remain a gateway drug into science fiction forever”.
Cadigan makes a passionate case that people should read Foundation rather than just talking about reading it: people “should read it because it’s Asimov, on the one hand, and on the other, it’s one of the most ingenious uses of mathematics in science- fiction”. This is definitely a classic book you should read.
5. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
It’s one of those books that everyone talks about, but a lot of people don’t even bother to read because it’s “a big novel”, says John Shirley, author of Crawlers, demonsand Wyatt in Wichita.
But it’s definitely worth it, he adds: “It’s kind of ironic and tongue-in-cheek at the same time as it’s gripping, imaginative and fantastical. It’s also some of the best fantasy prose. But it doesn’t take the genre too seriously, although it is somehow deeply meaningful. And yet fully aware of the absurdity of existence. Maybe it’s a bit like James Branch Cabell.
6. 1984 by George Orwell
“I think a lot of people claim to have read Orwell’s 1984 and haven’t. It’s such a pervasive cultural meme that I think everyone assumes they know what someone is talking about when they refer to it,” says Christopher Moore, author of Lamb, fluke and The dumbest angel.
But he adds: “In a culture where we make assumptions about freedom of information and privacy, I think 1984 is more relevant than ever. It’s easy reading, and there’s a real sense of humanity to the text that’s immediate and to the point. It’s the sourcebook for dozens of dystopian books and movies that have come out since it was published, so I think a lot of lights come on when you read it.
7. Last and First Man and Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
According to Rudy Rucker, author of Items tetralogy, Jim and the Flims and an autobiography, Nested Scrolls. Chances are everyone has a worn Stapledon paperback somewhere on their shelf that they’ve skimmed through but not read cover to cover. “Wonderful visionary SF by a professional philosopher, these novels carry with them the seeds of everything that came after,” says Rucker.
8. Leigh Brackett’s Long Tomorrow
“I don’t understand why it’s not recognized as a great American sf novel – probably because not everyone who said they’ve read it has read it,” says Nicola Griffith, author of Keep, stay, Ammonite and Still. “The first third reads like a King James Bible for American mythos: sure, rhythmic, and relentless.”
Griffith adds: “It’s a Bildungsroman, but because Brackett’s ambition was enormous, she chose for her to set a post-nuclear ruined Earth. She aimed for nothing less than the first serious sci-fi character novel. In the 1950s, this book must have upset its readers like a sock. It would not surprise me to find that this was a formative influence on young Carl Sagan, the seed of Saganism: the idea that space nations were rare because they tended toward destruction before escaping the gravity of their planet. The long tomorrow is brilliant work – not perfect; Brackett was a product of its time, with all the cultural issues inherent in that caveat – but an incredible leap forward for the genre.
9. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
“It’s our Finnegans Wake. Which I haven’t read either”, imagines Nick Mamatas telling science fiction fans. (Mamatas’ latest books are The Nickronomonic and Last weekend.)
“Dhalgren remains a monumental achievement,” says Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation. As The Gravity Rainbowit’s a hard-working novel for the reader, “and we don’t seem to value hard work when it comes to reading,” says VanderMeer. Dalgren “signalled a mobilization of great ambition, emotion, intelligence and technical ability”, and it remains a high point, dominating “the tradition of the field”.
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Mamatas suggested this one as another book that people constantly talk about, and even keep on their shelves so the massive spine can signal how smart they are. But a lot of people probably see all those footnotes and give up at some point. Which is a huge shame – infinity joke is a brilliant and rich book, and it’s also a lot of fun (so it’s no wonder it’s the last entry on our list of classic books you should read).
The footnotes are actually hilarious and a must to piece the story together in your mind. More, infinity joke works like a really good detective story, as you witness the terrible fate of Hal Incandenza early in the novel and then have to piece together what happened to him.
So. 10 classic books you should read – it’s time we stop pretending we have them!
This article has been updated since it was first published.