Ender’s Game , Orson Scott Card
This captivating, complex, read-it-in-one-sitting novel is always the first one we recommend to anyone looking to dip their toe into the science fiction genre. It has action, sure, but its strength is in the psychological development of Ender, as he manipulates and is manipulated by the system. Plus, they’re finally making it into a movie starring Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, Abigail Breslin and Asa Butterfield (aka Hugo) as Ender. So you should probably read it before then.
Gun, With Occasional Music , Jonathan Lethem
If you love your hard-boiled detective fiction but don’t know about all that spaceships and moon men nonsense, or if you’ve grown to love Lethem in his realist phase (Motherless Brooklyn/The Fortress of Solitude) but haven’t delved into his earlier works, we suggest the Brooklyn-based author’s very first novel, which follows the escapades of tough-guy Conrad Metcalf in a futuristic San Francisco populated by scientists, kangaroo thugs, and artificially-evolved children known as baby-heads. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.
Cloud Atlas , David Mitchell
This is one of the best novels we’ve read in the last few years in any genre, though to be fair, it spans rather a lot of them, moving from a diary written by a notary in the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century to a mystery novel to a Kafkaesque tale to a dystopian future to a post-apocalyptic one — and back again. This is the book for you if you want a little taste of sci-fi, padded on all sides by some good old-fashioned literary fiction — not to mention some darn fine writing.
The Handmaid’s Tale , Margaret Atwood
Though Atwood herself would probably classify this book as “speculative fiction,” we think it’s close enough here as to make no matter. After all, back in 1987, The Handmaid’s Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award, given to the best science fiction novel published in the UK every year — so she might be outvoted. However, it’s not all science and using your bank cards against you — set in the near future, the book imagines a society based on chauvinistic, racist, homophobic ideals, and Atwood uses this setting to critique fundamentalist religious movements, strict adherence to “traditional values” and even feminism, if used poorly.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union , Michael Chabon
Chabon loves to mix genre writing with literary fiction, usually with success, though we think this book, set in an alternate history version of the present day in Alaska, is his finest achievement so far. It seems at least some people agree, seeing as the novel won pretty much all the big sci-fi awards (the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best SF Novel, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel), among others, when it hit stands in 2007.
The Stars My Destination , Alfred Bester
If you are a staunch reader of the classics and only the classics, you may have to bend your rules for this one — an excellent sci-fi retelling of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and an early anticipator of the cyberpunk genre. It’s an epic, blood-pumping adventure, furious and darkly comic, and it will probably make you dream of jumping wherever you want to go on a moment’s notice. Plus, though written in the ’50s, it still winds up on just about everyone’s top 10 list of sci-fi anything, so you’ll garner yourself a little bit of geek cred in the process.
Slaughterhouse-Five , Kurt Vonnegut
You’ve probably read this already, and it counts! Vonnegut is a soft entry into science fiction, since he wraps Billy’s time travel so snugly and satisfyingly in satire, metafiction, and postmodernism — and if you already know you love him, you’ll love this one too. If you already hate him, you should obviously choose something else. So it goes.
Fledgling , Octavia Butler
Like vampires this year? Like great writing by badass women all the time? Try Fledgling, a captivating vampire novel swathed in science fiction (these are vampires from outer space, folks) that also grapples with sexuality, race, and what it means to belong. You’ll stay up all night.
Frankenstein , Mary Shelley
She did it first, and she’s still one of the best — Frankenstein is often considered the first work of true science fiction, though in the collective consciousness the story has migrated firmly into the gothic horror/monster category. If you’re a purist and want to begin at the beginning whenever trying anything new, here’s the beginning. You won’t be sorry.
Dune , Frank Herbert
Dune is the world’s best-selling science fiction novel for a reason — though it doesn’t pull any punches in the sci-fi department (there will be complicated names), it’s as specific and universal as The Lord of the Rings, a complex world you can sink your teeth (and imagination) into. Even our most traditionalist friends dove in with no problems. Plus, the struggles of declining empires, giant sandworms, the birth of a hero — what’s not to like?