great themes of science fiction
Let's try something ambitious — a bigger, broader reading compilation. This column is divided according to unique interest-categories, beginning with...
dire warnings and self-preventing prophecies
These novels and shorter works inspire the reader to imagine the dreadful-but-avoidable dangers that may lurk down the road ahead. A few of these books even attained the most powerful status any work of fiction can achieve: they changed the future by alerting millions, who then vowed that the bad things should never happen.
Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl
Stephen Baxter: Flood
John Brunner: The Sheep Look Up
Harry Harrison: Make Room! Make Room! (basis for the film Soylent Green)
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Dani Kollin & Eytan KollinThe Unincorporated Man
Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Frederik Pohl: The Cool War
Nevil Shute: On the Beach
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: "Harrison Bergeron" in (Welcome to the Monkey House)
Philip Wylie: The Disappearance
Yevgeny Zamyatin: We
harbingers of hope
These tales offer something almost as important as warnings... a tantalyzing glimpse at (guardedly and tentatively) better tomorrows. (It's actually much harder to do than issue dire warnings!)
Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas
John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar
Robert A. Heinlein: Beyond This Horizon
Aldous Huxley: Island
Kim Stanley Robinson: Pacific Edge
Vernor Vinge: Rainbows End
John C. Wright: The Golden Age
huh! I never realized!
Some tales simply rock readers back with wondrous stories that also broaden their perspective... from strange cultures to alternate social systems to unusual ways of thinking.
Frank Herbert: Dune
Donald Kingsbury: Courtship Rite
Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash
Vernor Vinge: A Deepness in the Sky
Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light
the hard stuff
Take us someplace new. Boggle us with possibilities grounded in the strange-real universe of science!
Poul Anderson: Tau Zero
Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Trilogy
Stephen Baxter: Anti-Ice
Greg Bear: Eon
Gregory Benford: Timescape
Greg Egan: Diaspora and Quarantine
Wil McCarthy: To Crush the Moon
Linda Nagata: Vast
Larry Niven: Ringworld
Robert Sawyer: Flashforward
Charles Sheffield: The Web Between The Worlds
Robert Charles Wilson: Spin
fantasy — with brains
Just because there's magic and wizards and kings and such... doesn't mean it has to be lobotomizing. There really are exceptions!
Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere: A Novel
China Miéville: The City & The City
Tim Powers: The Drawing of the Dark
Cherie Priest: Boneshaker
JRR Tolkien: The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings
Eliezer Yudkowsky (aka Less Wrong): Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (free online fanfiction)
Or... what if things were different?
Poul Anderson: Brain Wave
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination
Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood's End
Robert Silverberg: Dying Inside
Peter Watts: Blindsight
rip-snorting good storytelling
Just go along for the ride.
William Goldman: The Princess Bride
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War
Keith Laumer: The Great Time Machine Hoax or Earthblood
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: The Mote in God's Eye
Frederick Pohl: Gateway
John Scalzi: Old Man's War
alternative histories & parallel worlds
Extra points if it seems plausible that this might-have-been really might have been. And even more points if the reader goes, "That world seems more plausible than this one I'm living in!"
L. Sprague de Camp: Lest Darkness Fall
Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
Eric Flint: 1632
Ward W. Moore: Bring the Jubilee
Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon
Harry Turtledove: The Great War series (American Front, Walk In Hell, Breakthroughs)
Here the biggest test is whether you can offer a new or surprising logical twist. Bring on them paradoxes!
David Gerrold: The Man Who Folded Himself
Harry Harrison: The Technicolor Time Machine
Robert A. Heinlein: All You Zombies and By His Bootstraps
Fritz Leiber: The Big Time
Richard Meredith: Run, Come See Jerusalem!
Robert Silverberg: Up the Line
Connie Willis: Doomsday Book
The hardest thing of all to do well. Dare to try this most-difficult type!
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson: Hoka! (or any book in the Hoka world)
Harvard Lampoon: Bored of the Rings: A Parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings
Terry Pratchett: The Color of Magic
Connie Willis: "Blued Moon" in Fire Watch
Forget science, logic and other superficialities. Just love it. The words... the words...
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles
Harlan Ellison: "Repent Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow
Dan Simmons: Hyperion
Cordwainer Smith: The Rediscovery of Man
Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, Volume 1 (Shadow and Claw
Hey, it's a kind of time travel!
Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie: When Worlds Collide
JD Bernal: The World, The Flesh & The Devil
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland
Aldous Huxley: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan
Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men
Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
H.G. Wells: The Time Machine
SF authors often disclaim any intent to foretell the future. We explore it, test possibilities, perform gedankenexperiments, even warn or entice. But predict it? Well, at times we do try... and even keep score! Brin fans maintain a wiki tracking hits and misses from my most predictive near-term book to date, Earth. Here are some looks-ahead that have been impressively on-target.
John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider
William Gibson: Neuromancer
E. E. Hale (1865): The Brick Moon
Robert A. Heinlein: Beyond This Horizon
Frederick Pohl: Age of the Pussyfoot
SF isn't just Anglo-American
International contributions to this genre are undeniable.
Sakyo Komatsu: Japan Sinks
Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad
Cixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic
Tetsu Yano: The Paper Spaceship
science fiction for children
Science fiction opens young minds readers to the exciting possibilities of the future. Here are David Brin's recommendations of science fiction and fantasy novels for children.
Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising. During the twelve days of Christmas, Will Stanton must battle the forces of the Dark.
Bruce Coville: My Teacher Is an Alien. Can Susan save her sixth-grade class from a fate worse than math tests?
Peter Dickinson: Eva. What have the doctors done, with their amazing medical techniques, to save Eva?
Diane Duane: So You Want to Be a Wizard. Nita wants to become a wizard to help her stand up to bullies, but soon learns there are worse things to fear than bullies.
Jeanne DuPrau: The City of Ember. Ember was designed as a last refuge for the human race. But when the storerooms run out of food and the lights begin to fail, it’s up to two teens, Lina and Doon, to find a way out.
Neil Gaiman: Coraline. When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), things seem marvelous — at first.
Margaret Peterson Haddix: Running Out of Time. Can Jessie bring back the medicine needed to save the other children of her village?
Madeleine L'Engle: A Wrinkle in Time & A Swiftly Tilting Planet. L'Engle's classic book also received an Newbery Award.
Lois Lowry: The Giver. Another Newbery recipient: Jonas struggles with the dark secrets of his not-so-idyllic community.
Susan Beth Pfeffer: Life As We Knew It. After an asteroid brings global catastrophe, Miranda struggles to hold on to hope in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world.
Daniel Pinkwater: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (and 4 other books). Leonard meets a new friends in Junior High — a Martian.
Terry Pratchett: Only You Can Save Mankind. Johnny is playing a video game, isn't he?
Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). Lyra Belacqua and her daemon travel between worlds battling a great evil.
Neal Schusterman: The Dark Side of Nowhere. Nobody is who they say they are — including Jason.
science fiction for young adults
What books can we give our teens and young adults that don't mire them in a swamp of vampires, domineering wizards or nostalgia for feudalism? Here are just a few of Brin's favorites.
M. T. Anderson: Feed. A futuristic consumer-mad world where news and advertisements are fed continuously to the brain — till a hacker disrupts the flow.
Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Trilogy. Gibbon's Decline of the Roman Empire with an interstellar twist. The Galactic Empire is going to fall, but Hari Seldon has a plan.
John Barnes: Orbital Resonance. Through his 13-year old protagonist, Melpomene Murray, Barnes presents a riveting portrayal of life in space aboard the Flying Dutchman, an asteroid colony which supplies the overpopulated home planet Earth.
Gregory Benford: Against Infinity. A coming of age story of a young man on the icy surface of Ganymede, searching for a dangerous alien artifact that haunts dreams.
Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination. A classic of Science fiction, this is a story of revenge. Gulliver Foyle, left stranded in space, is determined to track down those responsible. (Predicted an entrenched wealthy subculture, and a tattooed-tribal subculture.)
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles. A short story collection about the colonization of Mars, as terrestrial expeditions set off to explore the planet, often with devastatingly poignant consequences for the native inhabitants.
David Brin: The Postman. After much of America has been devastated by war, a survivor comes across an abandoned mail truck, finds long abandoned letters... and delivers hope to isolated towns. (Okay, this is a self-plug. Though lots of kids prefer the lighter tone in The Practice Effect!)
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay). "Today, we need more sophisticated legends, that show us not only possible failure modes, but humanity buckling down to get things right." (Brin has more to say about this)
L. Sprague de Camp: Lest Darkness Fall. The classic timeslip tale about an achraeologist who finds himself in 435 CE Rome. Can he stop the Dark Ages from coming? Terrific. Started the modern era of "Connecticut Yankee" tales.
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? A post-apocalyptic story of the near future, which served as the basis of the film, Bladerunner.
Nancy Farmer: The House of the Scorpion. In the land of Orpium, an opium-producing estate between Mexico and the United States, a drug lord enslaves illegal immigrants, through chips planted in their brains. Our protagonist, Matt, has been raised as a clone for organ replacement.
Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book. To escape the clutches of Jack the man who killed his parents, Nobody Owens lives in a graveyard — learning history from the ghosts among the headstones.
Robert Heinlein: Tunnel in the Sky. Teens who want jobs in space must spend a week surviving an alien world, but what happens if they're stranded? Heinlein's answer to Lord of the Flies.
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. A dystopia fast becoming more likely than 1984. Also more fun, but creepy. Thought provoking and on college reading lists.
Jack McDevitt: The Engines of God. Two archeologists struggle to preserve the alien artifacts on planet Quraqua — which may hold essential clues to humanity's survival! — before terraforming destroys all traces of the alien civilization.
Andre Norton: The Stars Are Ours!. No one wrote escapist adolescent adventure in space better than Andre Norton. Her Young Adult novels were legend, and SFWA's YA award is named after her. (Any book by this author will please a bright teen.)
Alexei Panshin: Rite of Passage. A multi-generation colony ship tests its youth by casting them out to survive for a month of Trial upon the hostile colony worlds. Truly the classic YA science fiction novel and a pioneer at the young-female point of view.
George Stewart: Earth Abides. In this post-apocalyptic story, most of humanity has been wiped out by pandemic. Ish Wiliams emerges from his solitary cabin to find the land deserted... almost. A gentle, thoughtful book, easy to read but very literary.
Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Verne wrote brief, captivating "go there" adventure tales that still read well. Choose a direction: up, down or into the sea and Verne's intrepid adventurers head that way! But his Captain Nemo was a character with tragic depth.
Scott Westerfield: Leviathan. This steampunk novel presents an alternate history of World War I, pitting the Central Powers and their steam-powered war machines, against the British Darwinists, who have genetically modified animals for fighting. Our protagonist, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, rides into battle on the Leviathan, an enormous biological dirigible.
nonfiction for SF fans
Here are some of David Brin's favorite nonfiction books. Read for a grounding in the science behind his science fiction and nonfiction.
In this fascinating look at human progress over the last one thousand years of civilization, Ian Mortimer’s book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution offers perspective on how far we have come, especially by developing new tools... and a vigorously open society. And especially science.
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt: Networks and Netwars. Prescient, spooky and worrisome, yet remaining hopeful about our ability to cope — over the long run — with terror threats to our complex civilization.
Robert D. Atkinson: The Past And Future of America's Economy. Explores measures that would allow us to play our roles better in the world economy.
William Calvin: A Brain for All Seasons. It takes you on a tour of the new science that links deep ocean currents with the climate patterns that made Earth a crucible for human development. Did ice ages and hot spells act as a 'pump' forcing our ancestors to adapt and change? Europe lies at the same latitude as Canada, yet supports 20 times as many people, because of the Gulf Stream... which may 'switch off' because of Global Warming. Find out more, it's important.
Gregg Easterbrook: The Progress Paradox. The clichés that most hobble us are those we don't notice, because we accept them so readily. Like the common belief that the world is going to hell. Easterbrook suggests we may be better than we thought. There's a world to be saved and those who spread either complacency or gloom aren't helping.
Ann Florini: The Coming Democracy. Dares to raise a long-neglected question: how will Planet Earth be governed during the next century and beyond? Might it be wise to start thinking now about using our influence for its most noble and most pragmatic purpose — taking a lead in helping to design Whatever Comes Next (WCN)?
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: Mother Nature and The Woman That Never Evolved. Author, anthropologist and feminist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy takes a fresh look at evolution fact and theory, then moves on to a cross-cultural view of motherhood, in this pair of stimulating books, re-evaluating things we thought we knew.
Kevin Kelly: Out of Control. Explores the new field of "emergent properties," showing how marvelous and surprising new complexities and capabilities often arise out of systems that began simply or primitively. Wonderful examples.
Melvin Konner: The Tangled Wing. Takes a wider focus on the biological foundations we all have to work with.
Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity Is Near. Pursues the argument that our scientific competence and technologically-empowered creativity will soon skyrocket, propelling humanity into an entirely new age.
Lawrence Lessig: Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0. Anyone interested in the dilemmas we face in the digital age should look at this book.
Michael A.G. Michaud: Contact with Alien Civilizations. Ponders the topic of "where is everybody out there?" An excellent book, covering these issues from many angles!
Chris Mooney: The Republican War on Science. Will the 21st Century be known as the time when our Scientific Age came to a whimpering end? Mooney explores how partisanship can explain much of this collapse of confidence... and why partisan interpretations don't cover everything.
Bruce Schneier: Secrets and Lies. From a more technical background, encryption expert Bruce Schneier talks common sense.
Lee Smolin: The Life of the Cosmos. Striking off to the very boundaries of this universe — and about a trillion others — Smolin lays out the notion that universes may behave like a form of life, evolving within the context of a meta-time far, far vaster than mere billions of years. This book inspired my novella "What Continues... and What Fails," which is contained in the story collection Otherness.
Edward Tenner: Why Things Bite Back. Says we are often fooled by our own best-laid plans. Possibly the most tragic human character flaw is our tendency to avoid the very criticism that may help us find our mistakes before they erupt and ruin our hopes.