Tom Lombardo’s Evolving List
of All-Time Best Science Fiction Novels



Science fiction is the most visible and influential contemporary form of futurist thinking in the modern world. Science fiction is so popular because, in narrative form, it speaks to the whole person—intellect, imagination, emotion, and the senses; the cosmic, social, and personal; the natural and technological; the secular and the spiritual; and human values and modes of behavior—stimulating and enhancing holistic future consciousness. Indeed, science fiction, for many people in contemporary times, has become a total way of life—a way of experiencing reality.

Though we may associate the concept of myth with ideas derivative from the past, or stories of fantasy rather than truth, I have proposed that science fiction is the mythology of the future, providing dramatic narratives that inform us and both frighten and inspire us about the future. Science fiction, similar to the great myths of the past, provides imaginatively rich scenarios and stories that excite, educate, empower, and enlighten us.

Science fiction is not an escape from reality, but following Arthur C. Clarke, it is the most penetrating form of inquiry and exploration into reality. Science fiction expands and deepens our understanding of how humanity fits into the vast cosmic reaches of space and time; it illuminates the present as well as the future. Science fiction is not just about the future of science and technology; it is about the future of everything—indeed, it is about the possibility space of existence.

The science fiction novel, in particular, draws the reader into a full blown adventure of the imagination—into the universe of indeterminable possibilities—creating a rich, in depth, and enthralling experience that both transcends and illuminates our everyday world. We journey to a different land, a different reality, and are able to realize a broadening of our perspective on the cosmos and humankind.

The following ranked list is my considered judgment of the best science fiction novels of all time. On the top of the list is Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, his cosmic and philosophical epoch that extends billions of years into the future, and then, in its mystical conclusion, transcends the life of our universe, followed by Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, the great literary, mythic, archetypal, and poetic masterpiece of contemporary science fiction. Such novels, and many others that follow on this list, have unequivocally and deeply expanded my consciousness of reality—past, present, and future.

My criteria for determining this ranking include:

  • Scope and originality of imagination (creativity)
  • Literary quality
  • Reader engagement - Joy/pleasure in reading
  • Quality of plot
  • Coherence and orchestration of ideas/events
  • Uniqueness
  • Scientific/technological/philosophical intelligence
  • Emotional and personal impact
  • Richness of scenarios and characters
  • Memorability
  • Ineffable beyond-ness (the fudge factor)

The list is continually evolving; in fact, it has been updated twice since my original list published last year. Though I have been reading science fiction for over fifty years, I know that there are still many classic science fiction novels that I have not yet read, as well as an ongoing flow of new novels being published every year. My intent is that I will continue to read more classics, as well as new noteworthy novels that come out in the future. The list will keep growing and probably re-arranging itself.

For a complete ranked list of classics, based on number of awards and nominations for awards, see Worlds Without End. As I have read most of the novels on this list, my own ranking below is based on a fairly comprehensive reading of science fiction literature. However, in my view, the WWE list is skewed toward the past, with more recent novels too low in the ranking. Conversely, other lists I’ve encountered, in my opinion, are too skewed relative to the present, with classic science fiction from early times ranked too low. Hopefully, in my list I have achieved a balance of the old and the new.

Aside from a balance of older classics with contemporary works, there is also a balance of techie (hard) science fiction and humanistic and personal tales. There are space operas and dystopias; adventures, satires, allegories, comedies, and tragedies; animal stories and alien stories; alternate histories and alternate universes; love stories, horror stories, and stories of madness. And there are tales that fold time and/or journey to the beginning and/or the end of time.

See my essay on “science fiction as the mythology of the future,” which examines many of the novels and authors on this list. The essay provides a history of the evolution of science fiction from its beginnings through the Golden and Silver Ages, the New Wave, Cyberpunk, and the great contemporary efflorescence of humanistic and cosmic science fiction. In my essay I look at both science fiction literature and science fiction film (See my best science fiction movies), and I consider how science fiction has both influenced and been influenced by the evolution of modern society over the last two centuries.

The essay is also in evolution; I have now expanded it into a full length college course, its content quadrupling in size and detail over the territory covered in the essay available on the website. A very brief introductory three part video is also now available on the website (See the Home Page), and the expanded course outline is available upon email request. See Contact Us.


June, 2016 Update

Since the last update in July, 2015 of my Evolving List of All-Time Best Science Fiction Novels I have read approximately 50 “new” (I hadn’t read before) science fiction novels. Since I have been working on volume one of my history of science fiction—the early history—the vast majority of these new novels read are from the period 1870 to 1940. All these novels have been incorporated into the list below, with the new entries listed in bold. Among these new entries, there are a host of fascinating, provocative, and prescient novels, including The Metal Monster by Abraham Merritt (1920), Distant Worlds by Freidrich Mader (1911), Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872), and The Messiah of the Cylinder by Victor Rousseau (1917). During this last year I especially have been doing some intense study and further readings of a number of the dominant figures of the early years of science fiction, including E.E. “Doc” Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and H. P. Lovecraft; there are quite a few new entries below from these various authors. Yet, I would have to say that the best novel, and equally the most challenging to read, among these early novels that I recently read was The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson (1912)—an amazingly bizarre, mystical, and rich imaginative scenario set millions of years in the future on a desolate and sunless earth. Hodgson, who also wrote the famous novel The House on the Borderland (1908), was a central, indeed pivotal figure in the emergence of “cosmic” horror fiction that eventually would lead to the fantastical and equally cosmic visions of H. P. Lovecraft in the 1930s.

 

 

  1. Star Maker Olaf Stapledon (1937)
  2. Hyperion Dan Simmons (1989)
  3. City Clifford Simak (1952)
  4. A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter Miller (1959)
  5. Last and First Men Olaf Stapledon (1931)
  6. The Time Machine H. G. Wells (1895)
  7. Perdido Street Station China Miéville (2000)
  8. A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge (1992)
  9. Stand on Zanzibar John Brunner (1968)
  10. The Time Ships Stephen Baxter (1995)
  11. River of Gods Ian McDonald (2004)
  12. The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson (1995)
  13. Vacuum Diagrams Stephen Baxter (1997)
  14. Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars) Kim Stanley Robinson (1991, 1994, 1996)
  15. Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  16. Earth Abides George Stewart (1949)
  17. The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury (1950)
  18. Spin Robert Charles Wilson (2005)
  19. We Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
  20. The Stars, My Destination Alfred Bester (1956)
  21. The Demolished Man Alfred Bester (1953)
  22. Queen of Angels Greg Bear (1990)
  23. Accelerando Charles Stross (2005)
  24. The Night Land William Hope Hodgson (1912)
  25. The Dispossessed Ursula LeGuin (1974)
  26. The Twentieth Century Albert Robida (1883)
  27. The War with the Newts Karel Capek (1937)
  28. Speaker for the Dead Orson Scott Card (1986)
  29. Matter Iain Banks (2008)
  30. The War of the Worlds H. G. Wells (1898)
  31. Hominids Robert Sawyer (2002)
  32. Snow Crash Neal Stephenson (1992)
  33. The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula LeGuin (1969)
  34. Watchmen Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986/1987)
  35. Norstrilia Cordwainer Smith (1975)
  36. The War in the Air H. G. Wells (1908)
  37. Brainwave Poul Anderson (1954)
  38. Behold the Man Michael Moorcock (1968)
  39. Ringworld Larry Niven (1970)
  40. Brave New World Aldous Huxley (1932)
  41. The First Men in the Moon H. G. Wells (1901)
  42. Two Planets Kurd Lasswitz (1897)
  43. To Say Nothing of the Dog Connie Willis (1998)
  44. The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick (1962)
  45. Diaspora Greg Egan (1997)
  46. The Humanoids Jack Williamson (1949)
  47. Permutation City Greg Egan (1994)
  48. The Quantum Thief Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)
  49. Bring the Jubilee Ward Moore (1955)
  50. The Anubis Gates Tim Powers (1983)
  51. Neuromancer William Gibson (1984)
  52. Hothouse Brian Aldiss (1962)
  53. The Space Merchants Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth (1953)
  54. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Michael Chabon (2007)
  55. Erewhon: or, Over the Range Samuel Butler (1872)
  56. The Food of the Gods H. G. Wells (1904)
  57. Childhood's End Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  58. Beggars in Spain Nancy Kress (1993)
  59. The Metal Monster Abraham Merritt (1920)
  60. Blackout / All Clear Connie Willis (2010)
  61. Skylark of Valeron E. E. “Doc” Smith (1935)
  62. The Man Who Folded Himself David Gerrold (1973)
  63. Metropolis Thea von Harbou (1926)
  64. Forever Peace Joe Haldeman (1997)
  65. City of Endless Night Milo Hastings (1920)
  66. When Worlds Collide Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1932)
  67. Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury (1953)
  68. The Uplift War David Brin (1987)
  69. The Forever War Joe Haldeman (1974)
  70. Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card (1985)
  71. Darwinia Robert Charles Wilson (1998)
  72. House of Suns Alastair Reynolds (2008)
  73. Existence David Brin (2012)
  74. Rapture of the Nerds Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (2012)
  75. Tau Zero Poul Anderson (1970)
  76. Startide Rising David Brin (1983)
  77. The Inverted World Christopher Priest (1974)
  78. The Crystal World J. G. Ballard (1966)
  79. 1984 George Orwell (1949)
  80. At the Mountains of Madness H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
  81. Homunculus James Blaylock (1986)
  82. Doomsday Book Connie Willis (1992)
  83. Alas, Babylon Pat Frank (1959)
  84. 334 Thomas Disch (1974)
  85. Flowers for Algernon Daniel Keyes (1966)
  86. The Fall of Hyperion Dan Simmons (1990)
  87. More than Human Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
  88. A Journey to the Center of the Earth Jules Verne (1864)
  89. Memoirs Found in a Bathtub Stanislaw Lem (1971)
  90. The Rise of Endymion Dan Simmons (1997)
  91. To Your Scattered Bodies Go Philip Jose Farmer (1971)
  92. The Fabulous Riverboat Philip Jose Farmer (1971)
  93. Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) Isaac Asimov (1974)
  94. The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood (1986)
  95. Darwin’s Radio Greg Bear (1999)
  96. The Manifold Trilogy (Time, Space, Origin) Stephen Baxter (2000, 2001, 2002)
  97. Darkness and Dawn Trilogy (The Vacant World, Beyond the Great Oblivion, and The Afterglow) George Allen England (1912, 1913)
  98. Vril, The Power of the Coming Race Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1871)
  99. Timelike Infinity Stephen Baxter (1992)
  100. Slan A. E. van Vogt (1940/1946)
  101. The Absolute at Large Karel Capek (1922)
  102. The Amphibians: A Romance of 500,000 Years Hence S. Fowler Wright (1924)
  103. The Moon Pool Abraham Merritt (1919)
  104. The Land that Time Forgot Trilogy (The Land that Time Forgot, The People that Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss) Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)
  105. The Chrysalids John Wyndham (1955)
  106. The Dying Earth Jack Vance (1950)
  107. The Midwich Cuckoos John Wyndham (1957)
  108. Little Brother Cory Doctorow (2007)
  109. The Mightiest Machine John Campbell (1935)
  110. Titan John Varley (1979)
  111. Tomorrow’s Eve Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1886)
  112. Looking Backward: 2000-1887 Edward Bellamy (1898)
  113. Gateway Frederick Pohl (1977)
  114. Dying Inside Robert Silverberg (1972)
  115. The Book of Skulls Robert Silverberg (1972)
  116. Tower of Glass Robert Silverberg (1970)
  117. Odd John Olaf Stapledon (1935)
  118. Stranger in a Strange Land Robert Heinlein (1961)
  119. Dune Frank Herbert (1965)
  120. Son of Man Robert Silverberg (1971)
  121. The Lovers Philip Jose Farmer (1961)
  122. The Ware Tetralogy (Software, Wetware, Freeware, Realware) Rudy Rucker (1982, 1988, 1997, 2000)
  123. The Island of Dr. Moreau H.G. Wells (1896)
  124. Omega: The Last Days of the World Camille Flammarion (1893)
  125. The Sleeper Awakes H.G. Wells (1899/1910)
  126. Mission of Gravity Hal Clement (1953)
  127. Evolution Stephen Baxter (2003)
  128. A Deepness in the Sky Vernor Vinge (1999)
  129. Exultant Stephen Baxter (2004)
  130. The Shadow of the Torturer Gene Wolfe (1980)
  131. The Wanderer Fritz Leiber (1964)
  132. Rendezvous with Rama Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
  133. Flesh Philip Jose Farmer (1960,1968)
  134. Sirius Olaf Stapledon (1944)
  135. The Gods of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913)
  136. The World Below: The Dwellers S. Fowler Wright (1929)
  137. The City and the Stars Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  138. A Case of Conscience James Blish (1958)
  139. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick (1968)
  140. Ilium Dan Simmons (2003)
  141. 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
  142. Invaders from the Infinite John Campbell (1932)
  143. The House on the Borderland William Hope Hodgson (1908)
  144. A Modern Utopia H. G. Wells (1905)
  145. The Shape of Things to Come H. G. Wells (1933)
  146. A Voyage to Arcturus David Lindsey (1920)
  147. The Invisible Man H. G. Wells (1897)
  148. The Hampdenshire Wonder J. D. Beresford (1911)
  149. Roadside Picnic Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)
  150. The Claw of the Conciliator Gene Wolfe (1981)
  151. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch Philip K. Dick (1965)
  152. Triplanetary E.E. “Doc” Smith (1934,1948)
  153. The Female Man Joanna Russ (1975)
  154. Singularity Sky Charles Stross (2003)
  155. Solaris Stanislaw Lem (1961)
  156. Frankenstein Mary Shelley (1818)
  157. The Algebraist Iain Banks (2004)
  158. Lord of Light Roger Zelazny (1967)
  159. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
  160. Timescape Gregory Benford (1980)
  161. Ancillary Justice Annie Leckie (2013)
  162. Lucifer’s Hammer Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1977)
  163. Rainbows End Vernor Vinge (2006)
  164. The Wind-Up Girl Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
  165. Mindscan Robert Sawyer (2005)
  166. Blood Music Greg Bear (1985)
  167. Lest Darkness Fall L. Sprague de Camp (1949)
  168. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said Philip K. Dick (1974)
  169. The Big Time Fritz Leiber (1961)
  170. Limbo Bernard Wolfe (1952)
  171. Gray Lensman “Doc” Smith (1939-1940)
  172. Skylark Three “Doc” Smith (1930)
  173. Ancient Shores Jack McDevitt (1996)
  174. The End of Eternity Isaac Asimov (1955)
  175. I, Robot Isaac Asimov (1950)
  176. Parable of the Talents Octavia Butler (1998)
  177. Herland Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
  178. The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham (1951)
  179. Lord Kelvin’s Machine James Blaylock (1992)
  180. The Chronoliths Robert Charles Wilson (2001)
  181. The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)
  182. Off on a Comet Jules Verne (1877)
  183. Lumen Camille Flammarion (1872)
  184. Seeker Jack McDevitt (2005)
  185. Wake Robert Sawyer (2009)
  186. The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
  187. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom Cory Doctorow (2003)
  188. American Gods Neil Gaiman (2001)
  189. Dreamsnake Vonda McIntyre (1978)
  190. Marooned in Realtime Vernor Vinge (1986)
  191. Man Plus Frederick Pohl (1976)
  192. Methuselah’s Children Robert Heinlein (1941/1958)
  193. Slapstick Kurt Vonnegut (1976)
  194. Dhalgren Samuel Delany (1974)
  195. The World Set Free H. G. Wells (1914)
  196. Paris in the Twentieth Century Jules Verne (1863)
  197. The Legion of Time Jack Williamson (1938)
  198. Galactic Patrol “Doc” Smith (1937/1938)
  199. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Jules Verne (1869)
  200. Morlock Night K. W. Jeter (1979)
  201. Who? Algis Budrys (1958)
  202. Damnation Alley Roger Zelazny (1969)
  203. Babel-17 Samuel Delany (1966)
  204. When Harlie Was One David Gerrold (1972)
  205. The Princess of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
  206. Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
  207. The Eyes of the Overworld Jack Vance (1966)
  208. The World of Null-A A. E. van Vogt (1948)
  209. Angel of the Revolution George Griffith (1893)
  210. The Mote in God’s Eye Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)
  211. The Boat of a Million Years Poul Anderson (1989)
  212. Distant Worlds Friedrich Mader (1911)
  213. Darker than You Think Jack Williamson (1940)
  214. Last Men in London Olaf Stapledon (1932)
  215. The Legion of Space Jack Williamson (1935/1947)
  216. The Lost World Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
  217. Tanar of Pellucidar Edgar Rice Burroughs (1929)
  218. A Journey in Other Worlds John Jacob Astor (1894)
  219. The Skylark of Space “Doc” Smith (1928)
  220. Men Like Gods H. G. Wells (1923)
  221. Gladiator Philip Wylie (1930)
  222. Among Others Jo Walton (2010)
  223. Edison’s Conquest of Mars Garrett Serviss (1898)
  224. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) Karel Capek (1920/1921)
  225. The Drowned World J. G. Ballard (1962)
  226. Islands in the Net Bruce Sterling (1988)
  227. The Mad Planet/The Red Dust Murray Leinster (1920/1921)
  228. At the Earth’s Core Edgar Rice Burroughs(1914)
  229. Beyond Apollo Barry Malzberg (1972)
  230. Dinosaur Beach Keith Laumer (1971)
  231. Gather, Darkness Fritz Leiber (1943)
  232. The Chessmen of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1922)
  233. A Columbus of Space Garrett Putman Serviss (1909)
  234. The Second Deluge Garrett Putman Serviss (1911)
  235. The Messiah of the Cylinder Victor Rousseau (1917)
  236. A Mirror for Observers Edgar Pangborn (1954)
  237. The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) C. S. Lewis (1938, 1943, 1945)
  238. The Last Man Jean Baptiste Grainville (1805)
  239. The Purple Cloud M. P. Shiel (1900)
  240. The Year 3000: A Dream Paolo Mantegazza (1897)
  241. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America Robert Charles Wilson (2009)
  242. Black Easter James Blish (1968)
  243. Camp Concentration Thomas Disch (1972)
  244. The Iron Heel Jack London (1908)
  245. Counter-Clock World Philip Dick (1967)
  246. Farnham’s Freehold Robert Heinlein (1964)
  247. This Immortal Roger Zelazny (1966)
  248. Children of the Sky Vernor Vinge (2011)
  249. The Warlord of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913/1914)
  250. Second Stage Lensman E. E. “Doc” Smith (1941-1942)
  251. Davy Edgar Pangborn (1964)
  252. A Time of Changes Robert Silverberg (1971)
  253. A Choice of Gods Clifford Simak (1972)
  254. Ring Around the Sun Clifford Simak (1952)
  255. The Year of the Quiet Sun Wilson Tucker (1970)
  256. A Honeymoon in Space George Griffith (1900)
  257. News from Nowhere William Morris (1890)
  258. The Great Romance The Inhabitant (1881)
  259. Ralph 124C 41+ Hugo Gernsback (1911)
  260. Time is the Simplest Thing Clifford Simak (1971)
  261. Double Star Robert Heinlein (1956)
  262. The Einstein Intersection Samuel Delany (1967)
  263. The Futurological Congress Stanislaw Lem (1971)
  264. Nova Samuel Delany (1968)
  265. The Black Star Passes John Campbell (1930)
  266. The Last American John James Mitchell (1889)
  267. Thuvia, Maid of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1916/1920)
  268. City at the World’s End Edmond Hamilton (1950)
  269. The City and the City China Miéville (2009)
  270. Robur the Conqueror Jules Verne (1886)
  271. Gullivar of Mars Edwin Arnold (1905)
  272. Pellucidar Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915)
  273. Islands in Space John Campbell (1931)
  274. After Worlds End Jack Williamson (1938)
  275. The Girl in the Golden Atom Ray Cummings (1922)
  276. The Master Mind of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs (1927)
  277. Master of the World Jules Verne (1904)
  278. After Worlds Collide Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1933)
  279. In the Days of the Comet H. G. Wells (1906)