Science fiction is a genre that presents challenges for those wanting to try it out: rife with far-flung adventures spanning multi-book series, new sci-fi readers can feel overwhelmed by the scope of characters, plot lines, and complicated technologies presented by even the best of writers. The following list presents ten standalone sci-fi books, by established and rising masters of science fiction, that allows a new reader access to the fantastic new ideas enjoyed by millions of readers.
by Isaac Asimov
Though technically part of Asimov’s “Galactic Empire” novels, this debut novel stands out on its premise that a retired tailor in 1949 finds out that Earth is only one of 200 million worlds, and they don’t really like us. Asimov is one of the true grandmasters of science fiction, and readers can continue with the “Robot” and “Foundation” series.
by Robert A. Heinlein
Another science fiction grandmaster, Heinlein’s prolific writing is exemplified by “Stranger.” A young man, a final survivor of a failed Martian mission and raised in the culture of Martians, comes to Earth for the first time. Culture shock, mind expansion, and cultism ensue.
by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s storytelling is fairly direct, uncomplicated, but delightfully presents innovative ideas (he did invent the means for satellite communications, after all). In “Childhood’s End,” humanity evolves from an inert species after alien Overlords eliminate poverty, war, and disease to one taking its rightful place in the universe — all without the “V”-style rebellion.
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is one of the pioneering female authors in science fiction. Always insightful with deep characters, she consistently puts the social science into science fiction. Told from the perspective of an off-world emissary, Le Guin deftly explores a social complications of bringing an isolated race of “ambisexual” humans back into the galactic political fold.
by John Sladek
A rare, though thoroughly worthwhile, book indeed. Building on some premises set forth by Asimov which permeate throughout science fiction, Sladek’s novel wittily explores what happens when good robots go bad. A consistently humorous science fiction novel with a well told story is hard to find (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” being one of the few outstanding examples).
by Walter M. Miller Jr.
What happens when one of the holiest relics in a post-apocalyptic Utah monastery is a pre-apocalyptic engineer’s shopping list? “Leibowitz” explores religion, knowledge, and the cycles of civilization in the face of war and ignorance.
by Robert J. Sawyer
To me, Robert J. Sawyer writes the ideal science fiction today: strong stories based on humble beginnings, manageable character list of relatively everyday people in extraordinary circumstances and thought-provoking “what if” situations. In “Calculating God,” Sawyer asks what happens when an alien expedition comes to Earth for help proving the existence of God, and only a paleontologist may hold the answer. This is one of the few books I’ve read so many times (planes, trains, waiting rooms, rainy days) that I’ve had to buy a second copy. Sawyer consistently writes award-winning science fiction, and is a reliable pick among current writers.
by Neal Stephenson
This is probably the most daunting of the books on this list (because of its length and techno-talk), but also one of a handful of science fiction novels written in the last 15 years that will endure. Stephenson, well known for his contributions in “cyberpunk” circles of the genre, tells a story of cryptography from two perspectives: World War II Enigma code breaking agents and their current-day data-crunching grandchildren. Both stories tell a winding tale of a final unbroken Nazi code that holds the secrets of treasure and knowledge, and also the high-stakes of work of cryptography and secrecy.
by Michael Flynn
What if a historian and physicist jointly determine a Black Plague-era German village that should still exist does not? I’ll leave you to read it to find out, but all I can say is that I loved this book and have since read anything of Flynn’s I can get my hands on.
by Dan Simmons
Simmons is well known for other, grander books (“Hyperion,” “Olympus,” “The Terror,” “Drood,” and so on), but this novella captures his gifted storytelling that may inspire further reading. Humanity is enslaved and slated for termination. Can a band of Shakespearean actors convince their hierarchy of overlords that there is something redeeming in humanity?
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About Matthew Rupert
Matt is a creatively-thinking, Scrabble- and soccer-playing, gosh-darn nice guy. He reads copious amounts of science fiction, gay literature, humor, foreign policy, and economics books. Follow him on Twitter @mattcr9 for a wacky time.
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