All time best SF novels

So, yesterday I declared that Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark is, in my opinion, one of the great science fiction novels of all time. Naturally I now feel I should place it in the context of a top ten list.

This is not a list of “most popular” or “most well known” or “most frequently considered great.” I’m not sure how far off the beaten track I’ll get with all these entries, but I’m pretty sure the discerning reader will notice that I admire sociological science fiction.

I’m not going to try to sort anything out within this list. All of these are great books, full stop. I don’t even care whether or not they had a marked impact on the genre; I’m judging the books solely in themselves. Also, I don’t generally like grim tragedies, so I haven’t read Hyperion or various others that often get picked out for lists of this kind. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but obviously I have to stick to books I’ve actually read. Not only that, but loved enough to read several times, so I remember them and appreciate them — unlike The Diamond Age by Stephenson, which I only read once.

In other words, like all lists of this kind, this one is a personal list, even though I’m trying to pick only objectively great books. These are also all science fiction because in this list, I’m steering clear of fantasy.

1. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

2. Cyteen by CJC

3. Dune by Frank Herbert

4. The Mars trilogy by KSR

5. The Foreigner series by CJC — I know; it’s not necessarily okay to uinclude two works by the same author, but here we are.

6. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

7. The Gaia trilogy by John Varley

8. Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie

9. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein

10. The rest of these are novels, but for my last pick: The collected short stories by Cordwainer Smith.

I realize that Ursula K LeGuin is a glaring absence. Unfortunately, though they may be great novels, I actually did not like and did not finish either The Dispossessed or Left Hand of Darkness. Beautiful, beautiful writing. But I didn’t connect with any of the characters.

Okay! So, given these lists are inherently personal, which science fiction, not fantasy, novels would you definitely pick for inclusion on a list of top ten greatest science fiction novels ever written?

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9 thoughts on “All time best SF novels”

  1. I am not sure if it counts as SF, but Doomsday Book by Connie Willis has really stuck with me. Same for Welcome Chaos, by Kate Wilhelm. And if Heinlein makes the list, Dispossessed surely should, too.
    I like much Cherryh, but bounced off Foreigner series.

  2. I agree with quite a few of yours!

    Cuckoo’s Egg by CJC
    Foreigner series by CJC
    Dune by Frank Herbert (but not the sequels)
    Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie
    Gaia trilogy by John Varley
    Forgotten Suns by Judith Tarr
    Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card – I won’t buy anything from him anymore but I’ll never give this one up
    Mirabile by Janet Kagan – which is short stories tied together into a novel
    A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller
    Ringworld by Larry Niven – the concepts and worldbuilding still draw me in, despite characters not holding up well with time

    Maybe Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke, although I think his best writings are short stories

    Maybe the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, which I haven’t read in years and have avoided re-reading out of fear that it won’t hold up now

  3. And how could I forget The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven. Same comment as Ringworld though.

  4. What a highly varied list, Evenstar. I’m happy to see you agree with me about so many, plus I’m startled I forgot about Cuckoo’s Egg, which is a perfect gem, not to mention much shorter and more approachable than the Foreigner series. I thought of Ringworld but left it off for the exact reason you mention: the characterization doesn’t do justice to the amazing worldbuilding. Mirabile is clever, but I’m not sure I’d put it on this kind of list — though I’m biased against short stories, generally. I thought of Ender’s Game, but found the biology in Speaker too unbelievable for my tastes, so wound up not including either.

    Yes, I think we all agree about Dune-but-not-the-sequels.

    I haven’t yet tried Forgotten Suns, though it’s here on my Kindle and I guess I’ll get to it before I die, maybe.

    I’m not a big fan of Childhood’s End. Maybe one day I should re-read Canticle.

  5. Greg Egan’s Diaspora is so impressive that I might list it despite its coldly inhuman attitude (an effect he may have intended to some extent, but still the reason I don’t think I’ve ever recommended it to you).

    John C. Wright’s Count to the Eschaton sequence is enormously ambitious and more successful than not, though it may be indicative of something that I’ve only read it through once.

    Startide Rising by David Brin doesn’t really need commentary: it’s just really good.

  6. _The Dispossessed_ really speaks to me as a physicist, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for everyone.

    I’d put _Growing Up Weightless_ by John M. Ford over the Heinlein.

    I thought _Ancillary Justice_ was derivative and just not that good.

    Jack Vance: _The Face_.

    I’d put Connie Willis’s _To Say Nothing of the Dog_ on the list but her short fiction is her true strength.

    Swanwick – same as Willis, and a stronger fantasist, but: _Stations of the Tide_.

    Just read _Mapping Winter_ by Marta Randall, and maybe it’s SF – anyway it’s a masterpiece.

  7. Growing Up Weightless is a great book. I didn’t like the ending and I’ve never re-read it, but I agree that it’s right up there at the top.

    I absolutely loved Mapping Winter and The River South — have you read that one yet? I’m sooooo glad she decided to pick up The Sword of Winter, revise it, reissue it, at then go on with a series.

  8. _The River South_ is in my queue. Excited to hear it’s also good. – Can’t believe I didn’t mention The Steerswoman – the 2nd and especially 3rd books are so rich, strange, and strong.

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