"Must-Read" SF Novels

Via a bunch of people, but most directly Matt Ruff, the Guardian has published a list of "1000 Novels Everyone Must Read". Which has triggered the usual flurry of procrastinatory blog posts indicating which books from the science fiction and fantasy sub-list one has and hasn't read.

I have other things I really ought to be doing, so of course, I had to follow suit. Below the fold is my list, following Matt's convention of marking in bold face those books that I've read all the way through, and putting an asterisk (*) after books I've started or skimmed, but never fully read.

  1. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  2. Non-Stop by Brian W Aldiss
  3. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  6. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
  7. The Drowned World by JG Ballard
  8. Crash by JG Ballard
  9. Millennium People by JG Ballard
  10. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  11. Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
  12. Weaveworld by Clive Barker
  13. Darkmans by Nicola Barker
  14. The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  15. Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
  16. Vathek by William Beckford
  17. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  18. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  19. Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite
  20. Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
  21. Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
  22. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov* (I got about halfway through it on a plane flight, and then never finished it)
  23. The Coming Race by EGEL Bulwer-Lytton
  24. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  25. The End of the World News by Anthony Burgess
  26. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  27. Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
  28. Kindred by Octavia Butler
  29. Erewhon by Samuel Butler
  30. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (What, no If On a Winter's Night a Traveler?)
  31. The Influence by Ramsey Campbell
  32. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  33. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  34. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
  35. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
  36. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  37. The Man who was Thursday by GK Chesterton
  38. Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke
  39. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  40. Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael G Coney
  41. Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland
  42. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  43. Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq
  44. The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delaney
  45. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
  46. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
  47. Camp Concentration by Thomas M Disch
  48. Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
  49. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
  50. The Magus by John Fowles
  51. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  52. Red Shift by Alan Garner
  53. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  54. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  55. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  56. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  57. Light by M John Harrison
  58. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  59. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein
  60. Dune by Frank L Herbert
  61. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse
  62. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
  63. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
  64. Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
  65. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  66. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
  67. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  68. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  69. The Children of Men by PD James
  70. After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies
  71. Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
  72. The Trial by Franz Kafka
  73. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  74. The Shining by Stephen King
  75. The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski
  76. Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
  77. The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin
  78. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
  79. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
  80. Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing
  81. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
  82. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  83. A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
  84. The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod
  85. Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
  86. Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
  87. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  88. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
  89. The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
  90. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  91. Ascent by Jed Mercurio
  92. The Scar by China Mieville
  93. Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller
  94. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr
  95. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  96. Mother London by Michael Moorcock
  97. News from Nowhere by William Morris
  98. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  99. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  100. Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
  101. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  102. Ringworld by Larry Niven
  103. Vurt by Jeff Noon*
  104. The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
  105. The Famished Road by Ben Okri
  106. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  107. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  108. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock
  109. Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake*
  110. The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth
  111. A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys
  112. The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett
  113. The Prestige by Christopher Priest
  114. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  115. Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais* (I read bits of it for a class on comedy in college)
  116. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  117. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
  118. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  119. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling
  120. Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  121. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  122. Air by Geoff Ryman* (I got maybe a hundred pages in, but needed something lighter to read, and never got back to it)
  123. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  124. Blindness by Jose Saramago
  125. How the Dead Live by Will Self
  126. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  127. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  128. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  129. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  130. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  131. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  132. The Insult by Rupert Thomson
  133. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
  134. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
  135. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
  136. Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
  137. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
  138. Institute Benjamenta by Robert Walser
  139. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  140. Affinity by Sarah Waters
  141. The Time Machine by HG Wells
  142. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
  143. The Sword in the Stone by TH White
  144. The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson
  145. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
  146. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  147. Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  148. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
  149. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The original "meme" called for italicizing books that you intend to read, but I was surprised to find that there aren't any of those, other than the ones marked with an asterisk. It also suggested striking through books you wouldn't be caught dead with, but there aren't a lot of those, either.

I make it 53 out of 149 read, which isn't as high as it might be. I blame the excessive Britishness of the list, which includes a number of books I've never even heard of, while slighting some American authors (no The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress? No I, Robot?).

More like this

Alas, no Cryptonomicon. I suppose it might be missing on the grounds that it's fiction with a lot of science rather than (speculative) science fiction. Still though, it's one of my favorites.

And no Jules Verne on the SciFi list, but strangely A Journey to the Centre of the Earth is on their "War and Travel" list, along with Around the World in 80 Days.

Saying everyone must read these 1,000 novels is retardulous. If you read a novel a week it would take you 20 years. It can't be the case that everyone 'must' do something that most people aren't going to do.

But that's a language problem. Much more important is the problem of size. A list that long is as pointless as the bloggers who have 500 sites in their blogroll. If I'm looking for an interesting site, and you tell me you favor 7 particular sites, I'll check a few out. You've been selective. If instead, you give me the phone book, I know your standards are lower, the average quality of the sites will be lower, and I won't bother.

"Fight Club"?

By 'As You Know' Bob (not verified) on 24 Jan 2009 #permalink

A very strange list. "The Monk" and "The Castle of Otranto", "The Magus" and "Orlando", "Glass Bead Game" ??? No John Brunner, no Asimov (arguable), no Niven, no short stories ("Solaris" instead of "A Perfect Vacuum"), "Stranger In a Strange Land" instead of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". All of Discworld, but no Brin. Toni Morrison, but not Borges? It reads more like a list made by a literature professor who looks down on science fiction/fantasy more than a bit so puts in their favorite not-quite-mainstream fiction (it has been a while - but I'm not sure that some of these are even halfway reaonably labelled as science fiction at all) and overlooks interesting and (perhaps) important genre titles.

The first rule of "best of" lists that include Fight Club--Do not talk about lists that include Fight Club. The second rule, don't blog about them either.

OK, so clearly the list is fantasy as well as science fiction, but even then it's bizarre. The House of the Seven Gables? Really? It's been a long time, but I don't remember anything there that would qualify as fantasy. The Unconsoled? Pretty sure that doesn't qualify either.

No Tiptree? No Sturgeon? No Wilhelm? No Morrow? No Crowley? No Lieber? No Blish? No L'Engle? No Lafferty? No Rucker? No Ellison?

(Okay, the first- and last-named in that litany are best known for their shorter pieces, but if a yard-long series like Discworld can be counted, why not anthologies?)

And if this list contains landmarks of no real lit'ry value like A Princess of Mars, relatively obscure titles like Only Forward, and fragments of larger works (Hyperion, Titus Groan, Revelation Space, etc), it seems ill-conceived as either a collection of masterpieces or as a comprehensive overview of the field(s).

On the rare occasions when asked for recommendations by readers new to sf, I prefer to steer them to the Nebula collections or best-of-year anthologies if lacking time to grill them on their preferences in mundane fiction for custom match-making.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 24 Jan 2009 #permalink

jefu @ 6: Niven and Asimov are on the list.

Since the list is meant to be what "everyone must" read, it makes sense to me that it's a bit short on titles that are mainly of interest to fans of a specific genre, and given that it's one of only seven categories, it makes sense that it defines SF&F very loosely. That said, I would certainly include Crowley, Borges and perhaps Lafferty. But I would disinclude Darwin's Radio and Revelation Space, both of which I thought were distinctly mediocre. And I agree that the list is too Anglocentric--where's Richard Powers, for example?

For what it's worth, I've read 81 of these titles, and most were very good, even if they wouldn't make my personal top 81. That's a lot better than most such lists manage to do, and makes me interested to read the rest.

Matt Springer @ 1: Cryptonomicon made the list under "War & Travel." I enjoyed it a lot, but it seems weird having a book on the list that's strongly reminiscent of an earlier book on the list (Gravity's Rainbow).

Glad though I am to see Ken Macleods book "The night sessions" on there, (I am saving it up for a rainy day), I am totally lost about some of the rest of the list.
I agree with Pierce and Jefu about the lack of some authors, moreover, there are many people such as Angela Carter that I do not know anything about. I can only conclude that they are fantasy authors, and I don't read much fantasy. the

Saying everyone must read these 1,000 novels is retardulous. If you read a novel a week it would take you 20 years.

A lot of folks around here hit that thousand mark by 9th grade.

Would add "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury. Listing "Hyperion" alone makes sense as it is far and away the standout in the trilogy. Also, "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut - a profound book. Great list!

By Mister Griswold (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

I cannot help but notice that only 22 of those books (and that's being generous and counting a couple of names I don't recognize, but could conceivably be men instead -- I didn't bother to check out a "Hilary" or a "Nicola" -- and I didn't count Kim Stanley Robinson, whom I know to be a man) are written by women. Since some of those women have multiple books on the list, we're looking at an even lower number of women represented. Interesting.
I'm sure a count of non-white authors on the list would be even more interesting.

I agree with jefu that this list seems to have been put together by someone who doesn't actually read much sci fi or fantasy. I mean, okay, Flowers for Algernon involves a medical procedure that (presumably) isn't actually possible. But I would not call it fantasy, let alone science fiction--any more than I would consider The Poisonwood Bible to be SF/F (actually, I'd say Poisonwood is more fantasy-y than Algernon).

And like Rebecca, I'm disappointed that there aren't many female authors. I'd like to have seen, at the very least, A Wrinkle in Time and The Mists of Avalon on the list. And at least one of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books would not be amiss, either (or even one of her Freedom novels).

And come on--Philosopher's Stone is on the list as the only HP representative? Yes, it was the first--but definitely not the best by a long shot. Makes me wonder exactly how these books were chosen.

And like Rebecca, I'm disappointed that there aren't many female authors. I'd like to have seen, at the very least, A Wrinkle in Time and The Mists of Avalon on the list. And at least one of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books would not be amiss, either (or even one of her Freedom novels).

I'm with you on A Wrinkle in Time (which probably got left off for being too YA-ish, but if you're going to exclude books for a young audience, how does Harry Potter stay on the list?), but The Mists of Avalon and the Pern books are just dreadful. I'm not all that sorry to see them left off.

Some McKinley or McKillip, now...

I'd actually say 1/3 is pretty good for a list of books that someone else tells you you should have read. Then again what "must read books" really means are "books generally regarded as good" which has a corollary of "books that a lot of people DO read because they are generally regarded as good" and suddenly the whole thing has become a statistics problem...

(PS: I've only read 18. Not a big fiction reader, period)

The biggest omission I see is anything by Jack Vance, who has a ton of seminal work (The Dying Earth, The Dragon Masters, To Live Forever...) and was clearly an influence on Robert Silverberg (and, hey, no Dying Inside or Lord Valentine's Castle?) and Gary Gygax among others.

I'm glad to see Ursula K. LeGuin on the list, but how about Mary Stewart's Merlin novels?

By Squiddhartha (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

Bernard Wolfe's Limbo should toss off Virginia Woolfs' Orlando. I mean, wtf? Yep, this seems a list by a lit prof who doesn't really grok SF, but is v proud of grokking the word "grok".

And why THAT Heinlein, hmm? It is a v different book if you read it in the 1960's vs today. Kind of like watching Equus today, with its embarrassingly wrongheaded Psychology; it was breathtakingly bold in the 1970's, now cringeworthy.

The Lit. professors just adore the magical realists, (as do I), but they have tried for decades to convince us that those are Serious Literature, not to be confused with contemptible "Sci-Fi" Guardian list is jam-packed with magical realists, which may indicate that SF is academically respectable. Good enough. I still wish the listmakers had purchased a clue from real SF editors.

I, too, noticed the list has landmark books of dubious readability. So is this a list for readers or lit majors? That a book begins a type or subgenre (Neuromancer, Foundation) does not make the best example of its type.

The Little Prince is here. Why? The Earthsea books are here, ALL of them, apparently. Why not just the trilogy? Titus Groan is here, but not the whole Gormenghast cycle. Only the first, (in so many ways the least), Harry Potter novel? Yet all of the Discworld satire? No L'Engle, no Susan Cooper? Yet there's PD James and here's GK Chesterton. Two Angela Carter yet one Vonnegut...

I love Jack Vance, but he has "minor specialty author" written all over him. For that sort of thing, I would go back to Dunsany or Cabell instead (probably Cabell, since Dunsany was much better at short fiction than at novels). I also note that Vathek, arguably the ancestor of the whole ironic/mannered fantasy subgenre, is on there.

In the abstract, I'd like to see more female authors on the list. In the concrete, I'm having trouble thinking of any omissions that I consider indefensible. Tiptree and Link would be, if short stories were eligible. I certainly wouldn't object to Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, or A Wrinkle In Time, but by the same token I would remove Harry Potter.

SF&F were so male for so long that it's not surprising that the number of acknowledged masterpieces is uneven.

I find it interesting that SF fans are usually very eager to claim that books published as mainstream with SF content are "really" SF, but when they displace genre favorites on a best-of list, suddenly they're not...

Skeptyk @ 20: Orlando is overrated, but Limbo is basically a curiosity, albeit a fascinating one (and I say that as someone who's read it twice, and is enough of a Bernard Wolfe fan to have just read The Great Prince Died and Carolyn Geduid's book about him).

I completely agree about Heinlein, though. My pick would be The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.

Diana Wynne Jones > Susan Cooper.

@Tim Walters

Oh, yeah, Mary Stewart's Merlin books. How did I leave that out? My son's middle name is Emrys.

I can't help piling on; some of these choices are very weird. Nightmare Abbey is a parody of early 19th century Gothic fiction, rather than an instance of it. Lord of the Flies is a great book, but in no sense fantasy or SF. And, really, out of everything Greg Bear's written, Darwin's Radio?!? Uncle Silas rather than Carmilla?!?!?

I can't believe you've never read Brave New World Chad. I read that one in...seventh(?) grade as required reading.

And hell, Naked Lunch is a random stream of consciousness output from a heroin addict on the road to insanity. I still don't know why I bothered to plow through to the end once I figured out that it would never be coherent, and I sure as hell wouldn't put it on a list of 'Must Reads'.

This is a long list. No Vernor Vinge? I'd put Ender's Game on there too.

Naked Lunch is a random stream of consciousness output from a heroin addict on the road to insanity.

You say that like it's a bad thing.

Rendezvous with Rama should be on there as Arthur C. Clarkeâs contribution rather than Childhoodâs End. Totally agree that A Wrinkle in Time should be there too.

By Michael Norrish (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

âThe Graveyard Bookâ Wins Newbery Medal
The New York Times
Published: January 26, 2009

Neil Gaiman, a renowned author of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels and comics aimed at adults, won the John Newbery Medal for the yearâs most outstanding contribution to childrenâs literature on Monday.

Mr. Gaiman, 48, won for âThe Graveyard Book,â a story about a boy who is raised in a cemetery by ghosts after his family is killed in the opening pages of the novel. In announcing the winner of what is widely considered the most prestigious honor in childrenâs literature, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, cited Mr. Gaimanâs work for its âdelicious mix of murder, fantasy, humor and human longing,â noting its âmagical, haunting prose.â


It seems the list is dominated by authors of whom I've read a few novels, but not the the novels listed (Greg Bear, Stephen Baxter, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, GK Chesterton, Stanislaw Lem, CM Kornbluth, Kim Stanley Robinson, Olaf Stapledon, Virginia Woolf, just to mention a few). In a similar vein, it's very inconsistent about whether it includes a whole series, or just the first novel.

Speaking as someone who averaged about a novel a day for most of my teenage years - I think a thousand novels is too many for a 'must read' list. The overwhelming majority of novels do not have that degree of fundamental importance or uniqueness - and there's nothing wrong with that.

Like others, I feel this list reveals traditional literature-snob biases. For example, rather than include something from Moorcock's Eternal Champion saga, they include Mother London, a book with a fairly difficult structure, much of which is quite boring to those not interested in stylistic stunts. From Clarke they included Childhood's End , from Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land. They include Wolfe and Woolf at all, etc. Speaking as someone who read most of the Darkover novels 2, 3, or even 4 times, Mists of Avalon is by far MZB's worst novel, but I can see why snobs of traditional literature would rather not admit they read any of her better work.

I can't agree with the person who said The House of the Seven Gables is not fantasy. It has (unless my memory has betrayed me) magic in it, although it's understated. (But while it's decent entertainment, it doesn't belong on any one's list of 149 good SF&F novels.) I will also claim Flowers For Algernon deserves the SF label. The best aspect of SF was always about imagining a new development, and exploring its consequences. Algernon imagines an intellect improving operation and explores the consequences, and it's wonderful novel, even though I still want to curl up in a ball and cry whenever I think of it. (I will grant the lack of nubile alien females in Algernon is a big weakness.)

With respect to the list of missing female authors who deserve to be on a list of 149 good SF&F novels, I would add Leigh Brackett and C.J Cherryh.

With respect to poor categorization, did anyone else notice Crichton's The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park on the 'Crime' list? WTF? Frankly I thought they were both awful, and don't belong on any short list of 149 SF&F novels, or 1000 novels in general, but if they're going to be on the list of 1000 novels, why in 'Crime' rather than SF&F?