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Ask YC: What's the most inspiring sci-fi book you've read?
43 points by moog on Mar 19, 2008 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments
Since Mary Shelley published 'Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus' in the early part of the nineteenth century, there's been an awful lot of sci-fi written. Which books do you recommend and why?

Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune by Frank Herbert are my favorites. the sequels God Emperor, Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse were good as well but I like the 1st three the most.

Dune was about how people shouldn't let supermen lead. it was complex. it was an ecological novel. they had quotable quotes like "thou shall not make a machine in the likeness of the human mind". people say it's the lord of the rings of science fiction. the characters are rich, the plot thick. i highly recommend Dune.

I don't read a lot of fiction, but I've read this entire series through 4 or 5 times. It taught me a lot about politics, economics, and religion. Definitely changed me.

Dune is fantasy >_> God Emperor of Dune was my favorite even though it was the most preachy. I thought the original Dune was a bit preachy being so strongly allegorical and all.

I prefer Herbert's other novels like Whipping Star/The Dosadi Experiment

+1 for Dune (my favorite in the series is the 5th book - Heretics).

By the way, don't expect the prequels and sequels have even half the quality of original Herbert works.

yep. that's true.

I consider this to be the greatest sci-fi short story of all time.


I'm a big fan of the book 1984, along with the full length works of Asimov.

I love this story simply because if you read the entire story and not the last line, it is worthless.

I had always confused "The Last Question" with another Asimov work... "The Last Answer".

I had first read TLQ many years ago, and had recently tried to find the story online, only to come across TLA. As hard as I tried, I couldn't come across the original story about the Multi-Vac (which, of course, is TLQ). I became briefly convinced that I had never actually read TLQ, but had made the story up in my head... until I read this post. Turns out I'm not actually genius. Kudos!


I like "The Last Answer" also. It says a lot about Asimov's religious views. My first exposure to Asimov short stories was Robot Dreams which has both The Last Question and The Last Answer.

I also liked Fredric Brown's shorter, funnier (and earlier) version:


(For some reason, I had thought this was one of Asimov's as well...)

That's great, I didn't know this existed! I had heard people retell Fredric Brown's version of this story and thought they were talking about Asimov's story. Thanks for the link.

Great story. I was trying to track down the name after reading the Clarke thread (though Asimov wrote it, not Clarke).

Oh man, yes. best ever.

Brave New World, by Huxley

I read this book in the eighth grade. I was fascinated by the classes the society was divided into. In the book you were born into a certain class, and I saw many similarities to today's world. It was not the most inspiring, but definitely it was the most interesting.

Yes, i was reading this book while commuting and thought that the mantra's those people said while swallowing anti-depressives was a bit over the top. Then the guy in the opposite seat swallowed a peppermint and said 'no smint no kiss' to the guy next to him...

depends on the subgenre :)

Superhuman: Slan by A.E. Van Vogt More Than Human by Theodore STurgeon Odd John by Olaf Stapledon

Post Apocalyptic: The Day of The Triffids by John Whyndham Earth Abides by George R. Stewart A Canticle for Lebowitz by...don't remember

Space Opera/Adventure: any of The Culture novels by Iain M. Banks The Reality Dysfunction series by ...don't remember Hyperion series by Dan Simmons To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Dystopian: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin <---highly overlooked, predates 1984 and Brave New World

But the Absolute Best would be anything by: Stanislaw Lem (Cyberiad, Futurological Congress, Solaris) Alfred Bester (The STars my Destination, The Demolished Man) or Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17, Dhalgren, Trtion, Nova) oh and Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and This Immortal are both great.

Some of Philip K. Dick's stuff is great, but everyone recommends him. :)

almost forgot John Brunner, check out Steel Beach, The Sheep Look Up, and Stand on Zanzibar.

Stanislaw lem.. i agree... Solaris was special.. and most purists seemed to suggest the translation from Polish was bad!... Olaf stapledon's last and first men, starMaker were both stunning... Ursula le guin also come to mind

If you're going to mention John Brunner, you can't forget The Shockwave Rider. I found it very prescient when I read it in the '90s. If William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk, I think that makes Brunner the grandfather.

forgot Time Travel Connie Willis (To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book) both great. anything by Ursula K LeGuin as well.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It starts off with separate storylines touching on all the great sci-fi clich├ęs - time travel, FTL travel, computer nets, out-of-control AIs, lost civilisations, humanity scindered into two estranged parts, mysterious monsters, strange maladies, it has everything. Except, at first, this pastiche just feels disjointed. But then, near the end, all of this wierd stuff, that you never really understand, gets pulled together into one, cohesive whole.

Hyperion is basically just a brilliant story, very enjoyable to read.

That said, if I was to criticise Hyperion, it would be that it doesn't fulfill very well one of the important functions of science fiction - the examination of the impact of technology on society.

Which leads to my second recommendation - The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin in general is excellent for examining in depth the effects that small changes in technology may have on human society - it follows naturally I guess from the fact that her father was an anthropologist...

I can't imagine why nobody even mentioned Greg Egan so far.

Reading Permutation City left me in a dazzled state for days because of the sheer number of reality-altering concepts it throws at you in such a short span.

If by inspiring, you mean something that will give even the most ardent SF addict future shock, then his books are absolutely what you're looking for. His BS in Math and background in programming give him a great perspective on some of the most challenging mysteries of the universe -- and his work still manages to be the hardest SF I've read.

Check out Diaspora if you like what you see in Permutation City.

I came directly by searching Egan in the comment tree :)

Permutation city (or any of the Egan's short stories such as 'Closer') is probably the one of the most intense mind blowing experiences I ever had (at least regarding books), it shouldn't even be called "SciFi" it is... something else

BTW: Diaspora is the next book in my list.... I hope not to be dissapointed.

Second Egan, for 'Permutation City' and his short stories (in 'Axiomatic', especially).

Also, Greg Bear's 'Blood Music' inspired me both with its vision and its jumbling of genres, especially given its publication date (1985).

No hacker site would be complete without mention of Cryptonomicon.

That being said, I always liked the epics in the style of Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, and the like.

I find Stephenson to be somewhat hard to read due to his peculiar use of present tense. His Snow Crash novel is an absolute must read in a cyberpunk genre. It is really vivid, bizarre and quite believable version of a near future. Only if he'd opted for using past tense .. :)

His Baroque Trilogy I found to be the most inspiring read in the last few years - while it's easy to argue that it isn't strictly science fiction. Since it sets up characters who appear in Cryptonomicon, I feel I can get away with it.

What the trilogy has in common with inspiring sci-fi is that it changes the way I look at the present - drastically. His characters are present for the beginnings of what we call science, the current economy and also on slave and pirate ships. He has brilliant physicists who are also alchemists and at war with themselves over not being able to resolve their own contradictions. (Newton) It's fiction about the history of science - and it's weirder and whackier and grander than anything else I've ever read. (Take THAT Tolstoy!( (you hack!)

Of course, I'll also second Snowcrash as a must-read. Same with Cryptonomicon.

I'm a fan of The Diamond Age, myself. I found it inspirational that nanotechnology could make the fulfillment of basic needs effectively free, that creating programs could translate into creating real objects, and that an interactive device could amplify learning.

Ender's Game, because of the age at which I read it. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and it definitely affected how I viewed my peers in school.

Agreed, this is probably one of my favorite sci-fi novel of all time.

Excellent story, well-developed characters. I think what makes this novel so popular is because all of us can related to the main character, Ender, on some level. Highly recommended if you haven't read it. It's too bad the sequels aren't nearly as good.

Neuromancer by William Gibson, though it might not be inspiring, is a must-read; it's practically internet heritage!

I thought Pattern Recognition (same author) was quite inspiring, though I don't know if it counts as most people's definition of science fiction.

Monday Starts on Saturday (by the Strugatskii brothers)

A programmer on a road trip through Siberia picks up two hitchhikers, who recruit him for the ideal job: to take over the computation center at the research institute of enchantment and applied magic. Fantasy sets the mood, but the book is really about people who love what they do because it's challenging and meaningful and fun.

One of my unfinished projects is translating it to English.

It seems to be available in German, but comments on Amazon say the translation is abysmal. Hope you manage your translation soon ;-)

My favorites:

Childhood's End by Clarke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childhood%27s_End

Foundation series by Asimov: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Foundation_Series

City by Simak: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_(Clifford_D._Simak_novel)

Probably a book of Phillip K. Dick's short stories. If you want to inspire imagination, nothing's better than sci-fi short stories for a hit of imagination-crack, and Phillip K. Dick is a master.

You've probably seen movies based on his stories, including: the Minority Report, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Screamers, A scanner Darkly and a few others.

Read the question, people, it's a trick one. The inspiring sci-fi book, not just a favorite one.

While I have a long list of favorites, I can't readily think of one that would stand out as inspiring. Virtually any good sci-fi book is impressive as it's a result of imagination at work, but this does not equate to be motivating.

So in this light the question is not that simple at all. I'm very curious to see if there's an answer to it :)


Got it ! Jules Verne, The Mysterious Island. I read when I was 14-15 years old and the amount, details and clarity of science exposure in the book was really astounding. In a very positive, inspiring way.

I love 1984. I wouldn't say it was inspiring (its dystopian) but rather an eye-opening experience. It made me change the way I look at security and privacy.

If you liked 1984, then you might also like "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_(novel) (don't follow the link. copy-paste it with the (novel) part.)

I've never read 1984 (I hope to when I make time), but I understand that they are similar. In fact, I heard that "We" was the inspiration for 1984.

Read the whole set:




Brave New World

I love dystopias, and these four have always seemed to work together, to me.

"True Names and Other Dangers". Reading a remark by Vernor Vinge on his concept of the "Singularity" led to my current career as a Research Fellow of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

I actually read True Names at your suggestion. The concepts were worthwhile but it exemplifies the reason many consider Scifi to be a literary ghetto - that for many sf authors the story is just a vehicle to get an idea of theirs across, artistic consideration being secondary. Not to say literary ends are more valid than conceptual ones, but it seems unfair to scifi that the genre has it's artistic merits judged by averaging both.

And somewhat improbably, I just finished Great Mambo Chicken today.

For some reason I misread "the most insipid". Oh well...

Personally the one that inspired me the most was the Foundation trilogy, with its nerd-propelled universe.

Yes! :-)

Asimovs' "Foundation Trilogy" was among my most inspiring reads, however I loved his short stories even more.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin made me aware that the way society is organised is not permanent and can be changed

Asimov's two big universes, found in the Robots series and the Foundation series, (which turned out to be the same when he revisited them in the 70's and 80's) are simply wonderful. By far my favorite sci-fi, and among the most enduring works in the genre. I read them both every two or three years, and sometimes grab one off the shelf when I just want something to read. The early Foundation is sort of a future history version of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (I seem to recall that was intentional, actually). Asimov's autobiographies and the posthumous book of his correspondence are all fantastic and insightful. I learned a lot from them, and my admiration for the man increased even more upon reading them.

Dune is also astoundingly good, though after the first three, the quality goes downhill (slowly, but surely). Definitely lots to think about.

Rendezvous with Rama left me breathless...and I could not put it down until I'd read the last page. I've returned to it a couple of times, and loved it every single time. The later Rama books are deeply flawed, and should have never happened (they were not written by Clarke, and it shows), as they make Rama seem...hmmm, I can't really think of the right word that expresses it. Cheap, dinky, small, something bad. But Rendezvous is a must read for everyone.

Douglas Adams, of course. The whole Hitchhikers' series is a must, while the Dirk Gently stuff is also funny, but not sci-fi and not mandatory.

I mentioned in another thread my love of dystopias, and one of the best ever is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. She's one of the best sci-fi writers alive (she doesn't exclusively write sci-fi, however). Oryx and Crake is also fascinating.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I enjoy all of Vonnegut's work, but Cat's Cradle is a magical perfect novel.

I don't know if everyone would agree that it's sci-fi, but Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth was an eye opener for me when I was a kid (I went on a Mark Twain kick when I was in elementary school...no one ever told me that all of his books weren't kids books, so I read everything I could get my hands on after being hooked by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn). Turns out Mark Twain was seditious, heretical, and quite the troublemaker all around.

Anything by Ian M. Banks. His Culture books are about a post-singularity universe where humans and superintelligences live in harmony. I'd recommend starting with Player of Games.

i can't narrow this down to one. some of these are already named: Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, "The Last Question", Ender's Game/Shadow, Dune, Slaughterhouse 5, Ringworld

The Mote In God's Eye, Niven & Pournelle

Carl Sagan's "Contact" was surprisingly good, educational, and even a bit inspirational. The movie was only so-so, so don't let the movie put you off.

The Lathe of Heaven (also: The Forever War; The Einstein Intersection).

Hmmm. My favs seem to all start with "The."

Asimov's First Foundation book. There's something beautiful about the notion that human behavior can become predictable when you take people in a group - Seldon's "psychohistory".

Ender's Game:

Inspired my company: www.endergen.com. Who's goal it is make systems of play that augment intelligence as well as hopefully laterally solve world problems as you use them.


For the morality that you must take responsibility for the consequences of your inventions.


Inspired most of the work on endergen(See Ender's Game Above). Introduced me to the concepts of privacy/security implemented in technical form and the conflict between the two.

Firestar by Michael Flynn. It's a little-know book by a little-known author, but it's the best near-term space sci fi I've ever read.

The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton

Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder.

Simply the most idea-packed book I've ever read that was actually entertaining. It also has some interesting discussions about meaningful post-singularity life (which are at least partially applicable to our lives today).


I'm definitely bookmarking this thread. Maybe one day, I'll have read all of them mentioned here.

But seriously, how has no one mentioned Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?!

It's a great book with a surprising amount of actual theoretical science (you know, stuff that could technically work). Douglas Adams writes the way I think. I wish I could do that :(

Grey Lensman by E.E. 'Doc' Smith

I still believe that a radical (slightly mad) scientist tucked away in his garage lab will come up with the Inertialess Drive and we will all be off the planet at will.

More pragmatically I doubt I could get through this book now and it would be just old hat to anyone post Star Wars.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, followed by Blue Mars and Green Mars. These to me are the only ones not mentioned already and are set in an inspiring way that celebrates humanity. Also the Rama Series by Clarke and Lee starting with the second in the series "Rama II".

"... What's the most inspiring sci-fi book you've read? ..."

I Robot: The 3 laws of robotics, robbie, positronic brains, susan calvin. Got the lot ~ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Robot

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Technically, it's sci-fi. Neuromancer a close second.

Growing up, I read a series of "children's sci-fi" books by Louis Slobodkin, the first being "The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree." These books played a significant role in my developing scientific interests.


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned most of Vonnegut's work, although it doesn't all count as sci-fi, it's inspiring in a very unique way (and worth reading a couple of times over).

Tales from the White Hart (Clarke, RIP) kicked off my interest in science and thus in IT. So that inspired me most.

Still, I think the best SF I've read was Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks.


2001: A Space Odyssey - What hacker read that and then didn't want to create HAL?

HHGTTG: Insipired me to keep the relative unimportance of most things in perspective

i like heinlein's "moon is a harsh mistress" and alfred-bester's "tiger-tiger / stars-my-destination". kinda old school though.

Gene Wolfe's two 'Sun' series, though in many cases you might be hard-pressed to recognize that his work is actually sci-fi.

Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey".

I kind of wonder about the people who are claiming books like "1984" are inspirational.

I wish I could save this thread for future reference when buying books, like I do in reddit.

FYI: If you up mod the thread it's saved.

Click on your name then click on the number next to "saved:"

The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

excellent choice.

For many years I always looked at the animation when I was defragging my windows disk and thinking about the end of Black Cloud. (Hint. The janitor looking at the screen)

"October the first is too late" is another Hoyle classic.

City from Clifford D. Simak

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse

David Brin's Uplift novels

"The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman, among others.

The book will put the timeline of your life into context, outline your limitations, and provide a grandiose example on the importance of communication.

("Ender's Game" and "Stranger in a Stranger Land" are among my top 5, but I thought the gem described above deserves attention.)

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