Can you recommend Science Fiction novels for me?
December 26, 2009 3:57 PM   Subscribe

The only science fiction novel I've read is "Contact" by Carl Sagan. Can you recommend me more?

I like Contact because I feel like it dealt intelligently with humans discovering alien life. I saw that there are other threads about science fiction books, but I am in particular interested in books that explore the theme of 'first contact' between humans and aliens. Outside of that, if there are any absolute must-reads, like a Great Gatsby of Science Fiction, I'm open to that too.
posted by tumbleweedjack to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Alastair Reynolds is my favorite sci fi author, and his Pushing Ice deals with first contact stuff in a really interesting way.
posted by something something at 3:59 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

For beginner's sci-fi, of a specifically first-contact bent, I recommend Robert Heinlein's "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel."

It's simultaneously charming, challenging (was written before space travel became a reality), and delightfully of-its-time.
posted by hermitosis at 4:00 PM on December 26, 2009

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke, is a classic.
posted by alligatorman at 4:01 PM on December 26, 2009

Octavia Butler's "Bloodchilde". It's a short story that deals with "paying the rent" in terms of first contact i.e. what deal would humans make with aliens in order to survive.

It's part a collection of Butler's shorts of the same name.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:08 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:08 PM on December 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

I really enjoyed Stanislaw Lem's Fiasco.
posted by stratastar at 4:09 PM on December 26, 2009

i came in here to recommend robert heinlein, too. beaten to the punch! oh well. seriously, though. when i was a kid my fifth grade teacher read us the first few chapters to get us interested. when he was done i went immediately to the library so that i could finish the story for myself. i started re-reading it for the third time yesterday afternoon and it is just as good as i remembered.
posted by janepanic at 4:10 PM on December 26, 2009

Outside of that, if there are any absolute must-reads, like a Great Gatsby of Science Fiction, I'm open to that too.

You must read I, Robot by Asimov. It is an undisputed classic which continues to inform sci fi to this day. It's about people and robots, not people and aliens, but it's a pretty fast and easy read. (People will tell you to read Foundation. Don't! Read I Robot instead!)
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:16 PM on December 26, 2009

Speaker for the Dead is a good, accessible book about humans beginning to live among aliens (although the moment of first contact has already happened when the story begins.) It's a sequel to Ender's Game, but you could get away with reading it solo.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2009

In the absolute must-read category, Dune, by Frank Herbert (and if it interests you sufficiently, its five sequels).
posted by killdevil at 4:19 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

An all-time science fiction classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke's best novels--it won the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards. A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears.
posted by martinrebas at 4:25 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:35 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is a collection of short stories dealing with human first contact with Martians and settlement of Mars. I really recommend it. Maybe it's my favorite book ever.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:36 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh follows the humans' ambassador to a psychologically very alien species. It's much more about social interactions and the clash of cultures than guns and such. I think Cherryh does a great job of making aliens that are actually alien, but still possible to understand.

Stanislaw Lem makes a really alien alien that's pretty much impossible to understand in Solaris. I never managed to finish it (in fact, I shouldn't even claim to have read it) but some people really like it.

A classic is the Motie series, starting with The Mote in God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle. Generally, anything by either or both of these two is pretty good, although not necessarily about first contact.

Ian M. Banks has a Culture series that frequently features first contact scenarios. Look to Windward is an interesting one.

That's all I have for first contact stories, but here are a few of my favorite other sci-fi:

Pretty much every sci-fi robot story I've read has some kind of ideological connection, if only in rejection, back to Isaac Asimov's bobot series. I love the Susan Calvin ones myself. After Asimov's death, the series was continued by Roger MacBride Allen in Isaac Asimov's Caliban.

I like Old Man's War by John Scalzi, Glasshouse by Charles Stross, Freehold by Michael Williamson, and Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan because they explore some interesting ideas. I like Anathem by Neal Stephenson because even if you don't think the story is brilliant you'll have fun trying to figure out our names for everything the characters discuss.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:41 PM on December 26, 2009

Blindsight by Peter Watts is a first contact novel. It's a fun read with some crazy new ideas. The humans in it are not quite us though as it is distant future and we are heavily modified. It is somewhat realistic, except for the vampire parts.
posted by chairface at 4:41 PM on December 26, 2009

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card fills your requirements. You could read the first book stand-alone or the whole series.
posted by carabiner at 4:42 PM on December 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Giants Series by James P. Hogan
posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:44 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Neuormancer, the seminal work of cyberpunk (cyberpunk fans: ready, set ... argue!) Deals with embittered alienation and the cultural decline of the West. Set one of the reigning metaphors for the Internet, too.
posted by griphus at 4:46 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also: The Stars My Destination, which, if you're being facile, is The Count of Monte Cristo In Space (with touches of Flowers for Algernon.) It's also so, so much more than that. Extra bonus: one of the first appearances of the MegaCorporation in science fiction.
posted by griphus at 4:50 PM on December 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

For first contact, seconding The Sparrow and it's sequel Children of God. Goes deeply into ethical dilemmas of dealing with an alien civilization. Really beautiful, and painful.
posted by nangar at 4:54 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ringworld by Larry Niven has a bunch of neat ideas and characters. Total classic.
posted by fnerg at 4:59 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anything by Russell Hoban: simply incredible works for true lovers of sci-fi
especially Ridley Walker
posted by dougiedd at 5:25 PM on December 26, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is one of the most classic science fiction stories. First contact of the Martian culture with earth, it contains the origins of the word grok. Really wonderful stuff. I highly recommend it.
posted by Carillon at 5:29 PM on December 26, 2009

How about the A Wrinkle in Time books? They're for kids, but awesome. Also recommend Stanislaw Lem - though I didn't like Solaris much. Vonnogut was a science fiction author, even if not exactly what you're thinking of. Philip K. Dick was one of the best American authors in any genre - in my book - though he doesn't necissarily deal with alien contact. The Dispossed is a great novel. I never met a Bradbury book I didn't like. I'm mostly thinking in terms of really great writing here more than topic.
posted by serazin at 5:52 PM on December 26, 2009

Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick, Dick. Philip K., that is.
Specifically, Ubik is my favorite. It's one of the only SF books on Time's 100 greatest English language novels of the 20th century. Plus it's the book that I got my Mefi handle from!
Besides that, this short story collection of his is excellent, as are the novels A Scanner Darkly, Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Also, I second the Dune and Neuromancer suggestions.
posted by joechip at 6:02 PM on December 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I thought Ender's Game was pretty well done. I had heard about it for years as a book that even non sci-fi people would like and finally read it. I was glad I did. There are loads of sequels and things set in the same universe but I petered out after a couple. They're very popular though.

Also Dune, which has also been recommended above. That was masterfully crafted. I loved the multiple theme threads happening in that one simultaneously. So good. I just got into a flow with it after a while. I skipped it for so long because I had seen the movie, which was neat, but which made me think I didn't need to read the book. I'm glad I did.

Hyperion, the first book in Dan Simmons' series, was really interesting and well done. I didn't read the sequels but really enjoyed that one. It had great scope in terms of the galaxy in which it was set.
posted by Askr at 7:13 PM on December 26, 2009

I second Old Man's War. I never read sci-fi, but a friend convinced me to read it a couple years ago and I thought it was actually pretty cool. The author is also a Mefite.
posted by autoclavicle at 7:14 PM on December 26, 2009

yeah, came here to nth Childhood's End, Ender's Game, Martian Chronicles, and pretty much everything by Heinlein - my fav is the short story 'All You Zombies,' but I also love 'Stranger in a Strange Land.'
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:25 PM on December 26, 2009

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson might be a better pick over Gibson's Neuromancer, or worse depending on your point of view. Gibson wrote from a point of near ignorance on the subject, but made up for it with observations and culture from other places.

In contrast, Stephensen's book is somewhat a satire of Gibson's work. The fiction is futuristic but better grounded in reality; he spent a lot of time in undergrad writing programs for the Mac I hear. If nothing else, at least read the first chapter as it benefits from a storyboard process he used when originally constructing the novel as a comic book.

Starship Troopers is probably the Gatsby you're looking for though. Keep in mind two things though. First, it's not much like the movie. Second, the philosophy, politics, and ethics the book discusses predates Vietnam, so the idea of a volunteer army was, at the time, fiction.
posted by pwnguin at 7:49 PM on December 26, 2009

Issac Asimov's The Gods Themselves it has all of Asimov's weaknesses --wooden characters, awful dialogue, etc.-- but it's a fascinating take on how we might communicate with a very alien species, and vice versa.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:04 PM on December 26, 2009

One of my favorite first contact novels is Eifelheim. The aliens are complex and diverse, as are the human characters, and I think it's a really thoughtful exploration of the ways first contact affects both groups.

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge is another good first contact novel.

Mr. Creepygirl suggests Dragon's Egg by Robert Forward, and Footfall by Niven and Pournelle as good first contact novels.
posted by creepygirl at 8:14 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Orbital Decay. Construction workers in space take a scunner to the spooks manning the big-ear-in-the-sky at the far end of the space-station, and hijinks ensue.

Lunar Descent. The moon-dogs digging out the ore take a scunner to the Earth-bound corporation they work for, and hijinks ensue.

Both are good reads that are hard sci-fi. The only lasers are the ones measuring alignments on construction site.

Also, if you're looking for dystopian grim-meathook-future stuff, stuff that Russian publishing houses rejected as "too depressing" (no joke), you're looking for Starfish by Peter Watts.

Water-breathing thermal vent engineer/cyborgs at the bottom of the sea. They're all long-term abusers/victims thereof/both who have been sleep-trained in the skills needed, because only people that bent (but not broken) are capable of handling the pressures of life at the bottom of the sea.

And they're (almost) all volunteers. Things are really fucked up back on land.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:37 PM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and one of my favourite novels, The Left Hand of Darkness. All classics of 60s-70s intellectual sci-fi investigating social structure.
posted by schmichael at 9:38 PM on December 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't know much about sci-fi, but I recently read a few books by Joe Haldeman, and I think The Forever War will meet your criteria of first encounters with aliens. I DON'T recommend Haldeman's book, The Coming, which is purportedly about meeting aliens (*Spoiler* they're not aliens, so don't bother).

Also consider HG Wells The Time Machine. While the story isn't about traveling to another world, the time traveler goes to such a distant future that humans, as we know them, no longer exist. So it's very much like a first encounter with an alien civilization.
posted by kbar1 at 10:00 PM on December 26, 2009

As much as I'm a fan of Asimov, I have to cast my vote against I, Robot. Besides the somewhat pedantic point that it isn't a novel (which is what the FPP requested), it's quite uneven, and even the best stories aren't necessarily going to hold the interest of a new reader.

A better Asimov suggestion, in my opinion, is The Caves of Steel, a murder-mystery set in the far future. Elijah Baley is an agrophobic plainclothes New Yawk detective. Daneel Olivaw is a humaniform robot programmed to seek out justice. They fight crime!

Beyond that? Well, I'd second the recommendations of 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama, though I'd advise you to stay away from the sequels. (2010 and Rama II are okay. The third and fourth sequels of each series, not so much.)

I'm not sure Philip K. Dick is a good writer for a new reader; but if you are going to read him I'd suggest starting with either The Man in the High Castle or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ubik's a good book and all, but it's a bit of a mindfuck. (So is DADOES, but not to the same degree, at least IMHO.)

I was bored by Neuromancer, but in fairness that's probably in part because it's so archetypal.

Also, one of my favorite SF novels from the 50s is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. It's really more like three novellas set in the same world; after a nuclear war, the survivors turn against all scientists and anyone else of learning and the Catholic Church is the sole vanguard of civilization, having saved as much knowledge from before the "Flame Deluge" as possible. (Unfortunately, they've long since forgotten what most of it means.)

Another good older novel is I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, if the movie(s) haven't already ruined that for you.

As for Le Guin, The Dispossssed and The Left Hand of Darkness are good. I didn't care for The Lathe of Heaven at all, though, and frankly I wouldn't strictly call it science fiction (but that's a whole other argument).

Oh, and a good book that's an early satire of consumer culture: The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth.

And finally, Connie Willis' time travel novels, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. They take place in the same world, but the former is extremely depressing (with some dark humor) whereas the latter is lighthearted and humorous. I enjoyed both, but your mileage may vary.
posted by Target Practice at 11:09 PM on December 26, 2009

...although if I'd read the FPP more carefully myself I'd have realized they were looking mostly for "first contact" stories. Whoops.
posted by Target Practice at 11:13 PM on December 26, 2009

Dune is the Great Gatsby of Sci-fi, imho. Although its as much fantasy as sci-fi. I'll second Rama and Childhood's End. Gibson's Sprawl trilogy is really about first contact and a Great Gatsby contender. Dated, sure, but no more than the other suggestions. You can substitute Snow Crash for the trilogy if you must but you are doing yourself a disservice.

Im surprised not to see John Varley here yet. His Eight Worlds trilogy is a must read for anyone getting into sci-fi.

I also recommend staying away from PKD, Stranger in a Strange Land, Brave New World, etc at first. A lot of the allure here is kinda this 1960s/1970s association with the counter culture and paranoia/drugs/general weirdness. Earlier PKD doesnt suffer from this, so I think Man in The High Castle is definitely good but really a alternative history, not classic sci-fi. If this is your cup of tea, then check them out.

Might as well add Lord of Light and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as must reads.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:54 PM on December 26, 2009

I'm seconding schmichael's suggestion of Ursula LeGuin. The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are both phenomenal books. LeGuin reads like anthropology, so the "meeting aliens" thing comes across really well. There is a real sense of intellectual curiousity surrounding different economic systems, differing social and biological construction of gender, and all sorts of other stuff.

Also I haven't read him, but there have to be some AskMeFi-ers out there to suggest Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books. People love those.
posted by kensington314 at 12:38 AM on December 27, 2009

Response by poster: So many great suggestions! Thanks you guys! I decided to start with the stuff I've heard of before- 2001: A Space Odyssey; I, Robot; Ender's Game, Starship Troopers, and Dune... if I dig it, then I'm gonna have a lot more suggestions to wade through. The Sparrow and the other Arthur C. Clarke stories sound interesting too!
posted by tumbleweedjack at 1:35 AM on December 27, 2009

I've read and enjoyed a lot of Ted Chiang's work after working through some Nebula Award and Hugo Award winners.
posted by msittig at 8:57 AM on December 27, 2009

Seconding Octavia Butler; the Lilith's Brood series is an amazing first contact story that evolves as human/alien relations do. I also am really fond of Alien Earth a fairly unknown novel by Megan Lindholm that looks really creatively on interspecial interactions. And Sherri S. Tepper might be worth a try--she's good for feminist xenological stuff.

A Mote in God's Eye gets pretty good press here on metafilter, but I read it fairly recently and it hasn't aged too well.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:28 AM on December 27, 2009

You already have a lot of great title / author suggestions here, so here's a slightly different answer: check out the collaboratively edited lists on Goodreads that contain Contact, especially Best science fiction and Aliens Among Us.
posted by tantivy at 9:58 AM on December 27, 2009

I will enthusiastically third, The Sparrow and it's sequel, Children of God. I just lent it to a friend of mine to further spread the awesome that they are.
posted by lizarrd at 11:23 AM on December 27, 2009

I'll second kbar1's comment about Joe Haldeman's Forever War. The specific reason it's very approachable and digestible is that it's written quite blatantly from the experience of the author as a Vietnam Vet. Haldeman is my all-time-favorite author and I've read nearly all of his works. If you liked Contact because you appreciated the transparent real-world fingers of the author throughout the work, you'll really like Haldeman.

A much better recommendation, though, in the Contact vein, is this:
Another new book of his, Marsbound, also involves recently spacefaring people encountering alien lifeforms for the first time. Like Contact, it's largely peaceful and largely intellectual. So it might fit more closely with what you're already appreciated.
posted by carlh at 1:35 PM on December 27, 2009

To me, at least, it is shocking that no one has mentioned Dune yet! My fave scifi book of all time. Written with the same kind of attention to detail, love of science and humanistic introspection that Sagan writes with, but with the added benefit of being TOTALLY BADASS.

I can't even read it these days becuase I get so sad knowing what happens to some of the characters.
posted by Truthiness at 1:47 PM on December 27, 2009

There are many, many wonderful books listed on here, but the most jaw-dropping sci-fi novel I read this year was The Algebraist. Brilliant universe-building, probably my favourite alien race of all time (The Dwellers), and four or five absolutely gobsmacking set-pieces. I think Ian. M. Banks actually went to the future to write this.
posted by shimmerbug at 11:44 PM on December 29, 2009

Sure, I'm predisposed to enjoying his voice and his style of writing, but The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is actually a pretty enjoyable piece of sci-fi.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 11:47 AM on December 30, 2009

A bit late at this hour, and prejudiced by too much New Year's Eve revelry; however, I recommend Asimov's short stories (more novella than novela).
posted by print at 12:57 AM on January 1, 2010

"A Mote In God's Eye" is interesting; it actually treats aliens that aren't bipedal standins for humans differently, and bases their psychology on their physiology. It hasn't aged terrifically, but I love it, simply for the nonstandard psychology; it's science fiction, not something based on other science fiction.

"Blindsight" is available for free online, and is one of the best first contact novels I've ever read, mainly because the aliens are *alien*, again, not just bipedal standins for human beings.

"Dune" is political science fiction, arguably some of the best ever written. The follow up books are significantly less good.

"The Forever War" introduces the concept of future shock; someone taken out of society then put back into it later will have troubles adapting. Halderman wrote this as a parallel to his experiences in Vietnam.

Robert Heinlein wrote the fluffiest science fiction that ever inspired people to work for NASA, and I love him for it. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", "Stranger in a Strange Land", "Starship Troopers". Actually, Starship Troopers - unlike the movie - is pretty interesting. Heinlein was a Navy officer, but got TB and left the service on a medical discharge. He would have been 40ish during WWII, 50ish during Korea; his pro-military views are a great contrast to Joe Halderman's Forever War, because their views of the military and it's uses were so vastly different at points.

Phillip K Dick wrote Blade Runner, Paycheck, the Minority Report, a Scanner Darkly, Total Recall, and a few others. He was schizophrenic, and used that to his full advantage.
posted by talldean at 9:16 PM on January 15, 2010

I thought Moonstruck by Edward Lerner was a great and realistic first contact novel. It has a horrible Baen cover but it's a great book.
posted by dgeiser13 at 3:54 PM on March 1, 2010

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