The following list is likely to change by next week, but for now, my favourite ten sci-fi novels (in no particular order).
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Or The Canterbury Tales – the Space Opera. A collection of linked stories related by disparate pilgrims to the mysterious, time-twisting planet Hyperion. This is the first volume in Simmons’ epic duology relating the cataclysmic fall of a galaxy-spanning human civilisation linked by a wormhole network. Themes of religion, war, colonialism and paternal love are explored via compelling characterisation and expert plotting. I just wish I knew what the Shrike is…
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Haldeman draws on his own experiences as a Vietnam veteran to imagine a memoir of humanity’s depressingly inevitable war with the first alien race it encounters on venturing into the stars. The time-dilation effects of faster-than-light travel make the experience of war a millennia-spanning nightmare of combat and continuous technological and social change for the narrator. A bleaker ending might have made this the All Quiet on the Western Front of Science Fiction, but still a remarkable achievement.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Novel zero for what became known as Cyberpunk. The sheer amount of critical verbiage heaped upon this book over the years has somewhat obscured the fact that it is, in essence, a hugely enjoyable, fast paced, future-crime thriller (with ninjas). You do need to engage your brain to fully appreciate Gibson’s vision of a net- dominated dystopia, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
Use of Weapons by lan M. Banks
Possibly the darkest of Banks’s Culture novels. Former rebel general Cheradenine Zakalwe is recruited by Special Circumstances to perform a variety of morally ambiguous interventions in the affairs of potential future member-worlds to the Culture. Bleak, entirely unsentimental and featuring a trade-mark Banks twist, this is a compelling read. Just don’t expect flowers and rainbows at the end.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Richly detailed and featuring one of the most compelling central characters in sci-fi history in the figure of the messianic Paul Atredies. Herbert’s hugely influential epic plays out on a grand scale as feuding noble houses vie for control of the all- important desert planet Dune. Political intrigue, war and religion in the far-future, what’s not to like?
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
If you thought Avatar was an original story (did anyone?), think again. American Civil-War veteran John Carter takes refuge from some injuns in a cave and finds himself transported to Mars where he falls for a martian princess and fights a desperate battle to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Sound familiar? Burroughs’ elegantly efficient prose is a joy, although modern readers may find the commie-bashing allegory that is the Green Martians a little simplistic. Fingers crossed the movie doesn’t suck.
Broken Angels by Richard Morgan
Body-hopping secret agent Takeshi Kovacs traverses a less-than perfect pan- galactic future where identities can be recorded and transferred from one genetically engineered ‘sleeve’ to another. The second novel from the master of SF-noir is an intelligent high-tech actioner expanding the world first seen in Altered Carbon. High-tech weaponry, military jargon and firefights abound, but there is an important question arising from all the carnage: does identity have any meaning or even worth when it only exists as data?
Vurt by Jeff Noon
The book that generated an upsurge in US sales of the Manchester A to Z as American readers puzzled over the plethora of streetnames in Noon’s utterly compelling urban sci-fi. Noon presents a near-future society where gene-enhanced dogs are sentient and high-tech ‘feathers’ offer addictive virtual experiences. Featuring a cast of underclass youths feeding their feather addiction through crime, this could be seen as a sci-fi take on Trainspotting, if it wasn’t a hundred times better.
Voyage by Stephen Baxter
The only alternate history title on the list. Baxter draws on meticulous research to weave a convincing narrative of what would have happened if NASA had attempted to put on astronaut on Mars instead of building the great white elephant that was the Space Shuttle. A fascinating slice of speculative fiction for anyone still pining for the flying cars and moon-bases we were promised.
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
The first volume in the Night’s Dawn trilogy ensured Hamilton’s place in the first rank of space opera authors. As much a horror-novel as a fast paced action-filled saga, we are treated to a vision of an advanced human future where the ultimate question is finally answered: what happens when you die? The answer? Suffice to say, it’s not good.