Science fiction and fantasy have long captivated readers with their imaginative tales and sprawling universes. The first recorded story is actually a fantasy, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it's certain we were telling fantastic tales long before that.
So if you're wanting to get into sci-fi and fantasy, you are literally getting into the heart of humanity. Whether you're already an avid fan of these genres or just starting to explore, there are certain books that can't be missed.
It's completely asinine to expect there to a true Top 10 list when there are thousands of worthy candidates to choose from. Hence the "Must-Read List." I've tried to narrow it down, based on my own experience while giving a mix of the old and the current.
These universes are sure to give you incredible adventures, introduce you to fascinating characters, and explore the depths of the human imagination.
1. Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is often hailed as one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. In a way, it's almost like a space fantasy. Set in a distant future where interstellar travel is possible, it tells the epic story of Paul Atreides, a young noble who becomes embroiled in a complex web of politics, religion, and power. The standout features of Dune are Herbert's world-building and exploration of complex themes like ecology and destiny. Dune is a must-read, and if you want more, there are plenty of other books in the series, though fans argue about their quality all day.
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
This was my first exposure to fantasy, and I'm proud to say, I read it before the movies were even a thing! The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a timeless classic that needs no introduction. Tolkien's epic tale of the One Ring and the quest to destroy it has captivated readers for decades. Filled with incredible world-building, languages built from scratch, memorable characters, and profound themes of good versus evil, this fantasy masterpiece is a must-read for all fans of the genre. It was so influential that it's safe to say that every fantasy written after it pays homage to it in some way.
3. Neuromancer by William Gibson
Neuromancer is a groundbreaking novel that introduced the concept of cyberspace to science fiction. Set in a dystopian future where corporations rule the world, it follows the story of a washed-up computer hacker named Case who is hired for one last job. Gibson's visionary writing and innovative ideas make this book a must-read for any fan of cyberpunk and futuristic fiction.
4. The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
Want to read what inspired Tolkien? Look no further than this hefty standalone novel, a mesmerizing journey into a world of high fantasy and grand adventure. It gives you a taste of the different direction fantasy might have taken had LOTR never been written and provides a rare glimpse into a modern epic tale that draws absolutely no inspiration from that series, predating LOTR by a solid 20+ years. The first thing you might notice about The Worm Ouroboros is the language. Eddison uses rich, Elizabethan-style prose, which gives the narrative a timeless and epic quality. It takes some getting used to, but if you're a lover of prose, the writing will absolutely send you into a dreamlike trance. Set on a fantastical version of Mercury, the story's portrayal of the heroic deeds and conflicts between the kingdoms of Demonland and Witchland are filled with elaborate descriptions and intricate world-building. This book is an absolute treasure for those who enjoy fantasy that feels like reading an epic. The reading experience is challenging but rewarding in a way no other is.
5. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
This was my first real introduction to space opera, and what an introduction it was! Isaac Asimov's Foundation is a classic work of science fiction that portrays the rise and fall of a galactic empire. The story is centered around Hari Seldon (at least at first), a mathematician who develops a theory of psychohistory, allowing him to predict the future of civilizations. It tells a grand tale that spans millennia, and the deceptively simple writing gives rise to some incredibly grand ideas. Foundation is rare in that it's less about the characters and more about grand concepts, which is why so many have said it's famously unadaptable to the screen. Asimov's thought-provoking ideas and intricate plotting make this series a must-read for those fascinated by the interplay between science and society.
6. The Culture by Ian M. Banks
Speaking of grand ideas, there's Iain M. Banks and his "Culture" series, a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered what life might be like in the super far future, with concepts that will surely blow the minds of the uninitiated. The Culture is a collection of novels set in a post-scarcity, interstellar society known as the Culture. Expect mind-bendingly advanced technology, artificial intelligence, along with a high degree of personal freedom for humans who are more or less cared for by their benevolent robot overlords. The Culture navigates complex moral and philosophical dilemmas with plenty of action to keep you on the edge of your seat. The world-building is truly incredible, and Banks' blend of humor, drama, and political commentary, all set in a vast and intricately detailed universe, is sure to take you on an unforgettable adventure. The novels are all standalones and can be read in any order. I suggest starting with the second book, "The Player of Games."
7. The Prince of Nothing by R. Scott Baker
I've found the "Prince of Nothing" series by R. Scott Bakker to be, arguably, the best fantasy series I've ever read. But a warning: it is dark and can have some very disturbing themes, much more so than a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which is often used as a benchmark for "grimdark." The Prince of Nothing is set in a richly detailed world inspired by the Crusades and weaves a story around the mysterious Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a figure who possesses amazing mental and physical abilities that allow him to control pretty much anybody (even those who are wise to his ways). The series stands out for its deep philosophical underpinnings, exploring themes like free will, morality, and the nature of power. As a reader, I was captivated by Bakker's complex characters and the dark, often brutal world they inhabit. The narrative's blend of intricate political machinations, philosophical depth, and intense character development makes it a compelling read for those who appreciate fantasy that delves into the darker aspects of human nature. This is one of those series that'll just blow your mind again and again, and the background and quotes will make you believe that Bakker is simply just telling a real history from an alternate universe.
8. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a downright hilarious science fiction series that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. The story follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, an average human who is swept up in a cosmic journey after the Earth is destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Adams's wit and satire make this series a must-read.
9. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
After reading LOTR as a kid, this series became my next obsession. The "Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan, later completed by Brandon Sanderson, is a cornerstone of epic fantasy literature. As a reader, I was drawn into its expansive world, rich in history and culture, where magic, prophecy, and politics intertwine. The series revolves around the Dragon Reborn, prophesied to save the world but also to potentially destroy it. It has a lot of familiar tropes, but blends them in such a way that it creates a truly unforgettable reading experience. What's great about Wheel of Time is that, despite being super long, it's also highly accessible. The narrative's scale and detailed world-building are balanced with plenty of action, intrigue, humor, and character development. It's not without its flaws, of course, but Jordan's ability to create a universe that feels both immense and intimately detailed is a testament to his skill as a storyteller, earning him a spot on this list. It also has some of the best "sayings" in fantasy literature.
10. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
"A Fire Upon the Deep" by Vernor Vinge is a captivating and innovative work in the science fiction genre. The novel is set in a universe with a unique concept of 'Zones of Thought,' where different laws of physics operate, affecting the development of civilizations. In some zones, artificial intelligence and even advanced thought processes become impossible, while in others, beings can harness godlike powers. What drew me in were the novel's groundbreaking ideas, like the concept of a galaxy-wide internet, sentient pack animals, and the exploration of the effects of technology on societal development. "A Fire Upon the Deep" is a must-read for those who enjoy stories that are not just about space adventures but also about exploring the boundaries of science fiction as a genre.
Honorable Mention: The Starsea Cycle
Is it a bit cheeky to include my own series here? Yes, probably, but we're just going to go with it.
The Starsea Cycle combines the best of both science fiction and fantasy. It takes place in a universe where magic has become possible after the discovery of mysterious interstellar gateways. The series explores the effects of magic on society and space exploration at large, while introducing darker elements where the use of magic exacts a heavy toll on its users. It also weaves in a richly detailed history and lore on the origin of magic, and why it has "returned" to the universe.
It follows the story of Lucian Abrantes, a reluctant mage who must seek training for his latent powers before they destroy him. Soon, he gets swept up in a grand adventure that puts him at the center of the galaxy's events, and at many times is an unwilling hero who can't escape his destiny. He gathers allies along the way, and of course, makes enemies. The series explores themes of good and evil, moral ambiguity, philosophical questions, with a healthy dose of action, intrigue, and some humor thrown in.
Right now, you can pick up all these books directly from this website, and as the author, doing so best supports me since there's no middleman.
Unleash Your Imagination
Of course, so many more series/books could have made this list, but I tried to give a good blend of what both genres have to offer. These books have stood the test of time, and if they are more recent, will stand the test of time.
Whether you're seeking epic adventures, philosophical explorations, or simply a captivating story, these books and series will transport you to worlds beyond your imagination.