The SF Canon
These are SF books you need to read. They will make you smart, they will make you crazy, they will make you think like I think.
I've given Goodreads links to everything, but I must warn you, many comments have SPOILERS. AVERT YOUR EYES FROM THE COMMENTS. I hate the Amazon-infection of it, but you can still hit the Stores button and see iBooks or other ebook sites for each book. Some you'll have to find in dead tree editions, good luck with that.
- Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks: Civilization rising and falling in an isolated solar system with no hope, and the most sarcastic weapon ever, the Lazy Gun.
- Axiomatic, by Greg Egan: Short stories that strip away your delusions of "common sense reality" and "shared humanity", and just expose the bare bio-chemical substrate we all are. Next read all of Greg Egan's books, maybe start with Diaspora.
- Berserker, by Fred Saberhagen: You know the Fermi Paradox? If life is even remotely possible anywhere, why isn't it everywhere and broadcasting? This is the answer. Life appears, and Berserkers remove Life. The short stories range from silly logic puzzles to heartbreaking/horrifying things like "Goodlife". There's a ton of sequels, some of which are just as good and some are meh.
- Blood Music, by Greg Bear: Germs, they're everywhere. Inside you, on the planet. And if they could think… The ickiest singularity story ever.
- Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, by H.P. Lovecraft, ed. S.T. Joshi, pub. Penguin Classics, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories: These two volumes have essentially all of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, corrected from the original manuscripts, accept no substitutes. I grew up with the crappy Ballantine/Del Rey editions with the great Michael Whelan covers, but you don't have to repeat all my mistakes. Lovecraft understood the truth: That if a normal human mind understood more than a fraction of the real universe, it would cease to be human, or cease to be a mind. We worship the Great Old Ones not because they are real, but because they are the order of thing that can be real, as far as our primitive minds can comprehend. Ia! Ia!
- Chasm City, by Alastair Reynolds: Mostly hard, noir-ish SF in a universe where nothing works right. Next read the rest of this series (or everything Reynolds writes); Revelation Space is the first book, but it's not as well-written or a good intro.
- City, by Clifford Simak. Heartbreaking series of stories about the fall of Humans, the rise of Dogs and Robots, and the end of everything.
- The City 2000 AD: Urban Life Through Science Fiction, ed. Clem, Greenberg, Olander: An anthology of urban SF, almost every story was shocking and horrible in the '70s, now it looks like utopianism. Robert Sheckley's "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay" and Brian Aldiss' "Total Environment" are the must-reads.
- A Darker Geometry, by Gregory Benford & Mark O. Martin: After you've read Ringworld and think you've got a handle on the Kzinti problem, read Dr Benford's bizarre cosmic conspiracy theory from the Man-Kzin Wars.
- Farthest Star, by Frederick Pohl & Jack Williamson, Wall Around a Star: A FTL transporter system that makes sense (but has unintended consequences), an "impossible" (but logical) planet to explore, and conspiracies of really weird aliens.
- Feed, by Mira Grant, Deadline, Blackout: Zombie survival that makes sense, with guns, epidemiology, and blogging.
- Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge: Ancient software viruses can only be defeated by people who read USENET on spaceships. Next read A Deepness in the Sky.
- Galactic Empires, vol. I, ed. Brian Aldiss, vol. II. Collection of classic SF stories, organized into a loosely-connected "future history" by the story introductions.
- Gridlinked, by Neal Asher: Superspy for an AI-run civilization, but he has to give up his super gadgets, and the AIs don't like each other much, and don't run civilization all that well, and vast alien artifact/intelligences are encroaching. Next read all of Asher's books, great pulp SF. Mr Crane is my favorite thing.
- Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow 2: Man-Machine Interface: I know you like the anime. The manga is different, less shooting, more analysis of software running society and cyborgs replacing humans. Man-Machine Interface is about user interface design for AIs occupying humanoid shells.
- Helliconia Spring, Summer, Winter, by Brian Aldiss. Thousands of years of cyclic history between Humans and Phagors on a fallen colony world, told through short stories and essays.
- Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, Fall of Hyperion: A bit of Canterbury Tales, time travel, AI, the problems with easy FTL travel, parasitology, and irritatingly cool killer machines. The Endymion sequels elaborate on things that don't need to be elaborated on. Dan Simmons' other books are generally good, but never quite this good again.
- Kaleidoscope Century, by John Barnes: WARNING: This book will fuck you up. It is easily the most evil, vicious, amoral, destructive story and protagonist I've ever read. It's also brilliant, and horrifying, and almost entirely plausible. The rest of this series—Mother of Storms, Orbital Resonance, Candle, and The Sky So Big and Black—are far less cruel and violent, but don't mean anything without this one. So suck it up, and read it, and talk to your therapist afterwards.
- Long Afternoon of Earth, by Brian Aldiss: The final "days" of Earth, as rotation is slowed to a stop and the Sun expands to destroy it, and the feral evolution of life that tries to adapt, survive, and escape.
- Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, ed. Bruce Sterling: The collection of almost every story and author that became the Cyberpunk movement.
- Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle: So, Jerry Pournelle has this CoDominion setting where the US & USSR divided space between them, then formed a Galactic Empire, then it collapsed because governing by dropping mercenaries on your enemies isn't politically stable, then a second Empire formed after a Dark Age. Unless you really like Mil-SF you don't need to read any of those books. Mote just uses this as a setting for the best First Contact story ever; but this is why the ships are named "MacArthur" and "Lenin". The sequel, "The Gripping Hand", has a couple great short stories buried in a tedious novel; avoid unless you're bored to death.
- Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein: Heinlein's "Future History" going from 1950s with some weird engineering to next century or two escaping Earth. Heinlein's attitude is sentimental rather than rational, old-fashioned, white (not always color, just culture), patriarchal, aggressively anti-transhumanistic; improvements to Humans are greeted with horror, even though Lazarus Long and Slipstick Libby are far from baseline Human. I'll always be fond of Heinlein, but I suspect I measure against him, "this is how dull the world used to be". We need to think weirder, and go further than he ever would have.
- Ringworld, by Larry Niven: For this book to fully make sense, you need to have read two other Niven books: World of Ptaavs, which deals with the telepaths and Thrint; and Neutron Star, which has most of the short stories about Niven's Known Space and Puppeteers. The Man-Kzin Wars books would be on this list if any of them were above mediocre, but maybe read #1. So, now that you've done your homework, read the best Big Damned Object novel ever. The sequels are exponentially less good; Engineers is passable but don't go further.
- Schismatrix Plus, by Bruce Sterling: Biotech and hardtech factions adaptating to weird space habitats.
- Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson: VR, Sumerian myth, smart-wheeled vehicles, REASON, the Rat-Thing. Just an endless fractal of cool scenes and weird ideas.
- Songs of Distant Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke: A slow, sad book about the end of Earth, temptation in paradise, and cultural divergence in an STL universe.
- Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper: Vikings in spaceships with nuclear weapons, and a meditation on vengeance and civilization. I love all of Piper's books, but this is the most Piperian, "civilization is impossible because people are terrible but maybe we can keep things working for one more generation".
- Strange Relations, by Philip José Farmer: Human sexuality is so very limited and prudish.
- Summertide, Divergence, Transcendance, Convergence, Resurgence by Charles Sheffield: Humans and aliens research stellar-scale Artifacts left behind from a past civilization. The Artifacts are amazing and well-designed for their (often not immediately obvious) purpose and use, just reading the encyclopedia entries on them is worth it. The aliens are truly weird products of different evolution. The adventure plot is very… Spielbergian… but exists largely to drive the characters through exploration of the Artifacts. All of Sheffield's books are clever and well-thought-out, but these are his masterpieces.
- Synners, by Pat Cadigan: The grim and triumphant future of rock and roll. Constantly kicks in your head with cool and horrible ideas. Next read all of Pat's books, Mindplayers and Fools use different spins on brain interfaces, Tea From an Empty Cup and Dervish is Digital are in a cleaner, tidier future with unclean, untidy VR.
- True Names… and Other Dangers, by Vernor Vinge: A collection. "True Names" is a fantasy novella set in a MUD set in a science fiction dystopia, which looks a lot like our present. "The Peddler's Apprentice" is another fantasy novella set in SF. "The Ungoverned" is one way to run an anarcho-capitalist society without, usually, degenerating into nuclear-armed gang warfare.
- Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks: Like James Bond, if he was a terrible man used by the dirty tricks department of a "benevolent" hippie post-human AI-run civilization. But all he really needs is a chair and a hat. Next read anything else by Iain M. Banks, or his "literary" version Iain Banks (Wasp Factory and The Bridge are half-way between them).
- Ware Tetralogy, by Rudy Rucker: Humans invent robots. Robots eat human brains. Then things get weird. I think about something from these books almost every day.
- Worlds of Frank Herbert, Whipping Star, by Frank Herbert, Dosadi Experiment: I'm sure you've read Dune. The ConSentiency stories are better. Bureau of Sabotage ("In Lieu of Red Tape") operatives preventing efficient civilization from killing freedom in a galaxy with intelligent stars, frogs who make lawyers duel to the death, hive personalities, chairdogs…
I can think of hundreds more books you might like, if you like what I like, but I want to keep this somewhat focused.