19 of the Greatest Science Fiction Book Series

Science Fiction writers—much like their cousins over in Fantasy—are renowned for being able write volume upon volume of prose, great tracts of novels, seemingly without end. Often these tomes are filled with nothing so much as overly lengthy location descriptions and predictable plots. However, some of the true greats of Science Fiction have surpassed the limits of the form, and created vast inter-twined plots set across multiple novels, and multiple time periods.

19. The Odyssey Series by Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey is an undisputed masterpiece in the field of Science Fiction—it’s too bad the sequels can’t say the same thing. 2010, 2061 and 3001 just couldn’t live up to the power of the original. Perhaps it’s because the novel was written in conjunction with the immensely influential film, or maybe Clarke tired of the saga of the monoliths. None of them are bad novels, it’s just the blinding strength of the first in the series makes them dim in comparison. I do have a soft spot for 3001 especially, though I have no idea why. Also, if you can get hold of it, try and read the comic adaptation of 2001, it was one of Jack Kirby’s finest works.

18 Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Regardless of what you think of his politics, OSC wrote an amazing novel in Ender’s Game. It’s a book that just about every high school boy connects with on a deeply visceral level. However, like some of the other series on this list, it suffered diminishing returns. After the astonishing Ender’s Game, Card went on a more philosophical bent with Speaker For The Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind—which is where many readers lost the series. To be fair, at this point they are a bit dry, but still readable. It was after this that Card wrote the Shadow novels, a parallel set of stories that felt like he was milking the franchise. Then there was A War of Gifts: An Ender Story, about which the less said the better.

17. Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

I can’t be the only kid, who at the age of 10 found myself entranced by the futuristic yet feudal world of Pern, with its engineered fire-breathing dragons, deadly threadfall, and telepathic bonding. Impressive in their longevity (19 novels and counting) McCaffrey’s Pern stories are perhaps not the most cerebral of novels, and they sit on a line somewhere between SciFi and Fantasy that can cause many a pedantic argument. Yet even for all this, they’re extremely fun reads for young adults, and maintain their interest throughout the series.

16. Barsoom by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Starting with Princess of Mars, and on for 11 novels and countless stories, the grand high king of pulp crafted the tales of Barsoom, the dying world of Mars. Populated by giant four-armed brutes, beautiful topless aliens, noble beasts and immense treasures, the stories inspired generations of writers to follow. By today’s eyes, they’re misogynistic, racist and colonialist, but for the time were ripping good yarns. The staid morality found therein has dated poorly, but if you can turn off modern sensibilities for a couple of hundred pages, the sheer scope of adventure will draw you in. Plus, there’s an upcoming John Carter film by Mark Andrews and Andrew Stanton of Pixar.

15. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A recent series of novels, of which The Last Colony was a Hugo nominee for best novel in 2008. The series puts humanity as a troubled race in a universe full of other species, which they must battle against for livable planets. Adults at the age of 65 are allowed to sign up for the military, and when they join, their brains are transferred to younger clones, jam packed with nanotech and genetically souped up abilities, before being sent into the fray. Comparatively short to the other entries on this list (only four novels at present), Scalzi’s series artfully combines military action with philosophical depth, and has been compared to Heinlein at his best.

14. Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell

Another recent series, Buckell’s Crystal Rain and its sort-of sequels are a refreshing take on science fiction, that challenges the traditional Euro-centrism of the genre. What does that mean? Buckell’s from the Caribbean, and he adds a distinctive flavor to his work, bringing island patois and outlook to series. Well, maybe series is the wrong term. The three novels are independent of one another, but take place in the same universe, and share a common character or two—including the Rastafarian badass Pepper. The second novel in the trilogy — Ragamuffin — was nominated for a Nebula.

13. The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

Okay, calling the Baroque Cycle Sci Fi is perhaps debatable. It’s alternate history (more or less), but Stephenson say’s it’s Sc iFi, and who the hell am I to argue with Neal Stephenson. Notoriously long, the Baroque Cycle is made up of eight books spanning three volumes spanning 1660-1714, and is heavily thematically linked to the development of science and technology. It’s also deeply concerned with alchemy, numbers, cryptology and linguistics, because, well, it’s Stephenson, and that’s the sort of shit he’s into. If you ever struggled with his other work (I know that the end of Snowcrash left me a bit headachey), Baroque Cycle probably won’t be for you, but for fans of super-dense concepts and ideas, you can’t beat Stephenson.

12. Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

Okay, let’s take one of the key works of English fiction — Canterbury Tales — and recast it in the far future, about a group of pilgrims going to the tombs of Hyperion. Well, that’s the first novel in the quartet, and the conceit is dropped after that. However, the Hyperion Cantos is a magnificent work of literary depth, filled with allusions to seminal works of English literature, plus the machinations of a human interplanetary Government on the verge of collapse. Religion, death, war, and FTL travel mingle with references to John Keats.

11. Seafort Saga by David Feintuch

Feintuch has a habit of creating main characters that are utter bastards. Not in the badass kinda way, but just complete assholes. They’re usually doing the best they can in the situation, but they’re massively flawed — and all the more endearing for that. Nicholas Seafort is a rigid adherent to the rules, and has an unusually strict moral code. Set in the 22nd century, the Saga is spread over 7 books (and one more in the works) following Seafort from being a Midshipman to the leader of Earth, and usually stuck making horrible no-win situations along the way. The original four novels are probably the strongest, but it’s an incredible body of work, and intriguing in its world building.

10. Lensman by Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith.

This classic series of pulp novels from the 30s and 40s became a major influence on a generation of SciFi writers and comic book creators. Hell, the Green Lantern Corp is pretty much a direct ripoff of Lensmen. Intergalactic police force. Check. Ancient benevolent aliens. Check. Alien artifact that confers new powers on the members of the force. Check. Yeah, there’s a few similarities. In Lensman, the members are given a Lens, a symbiotic creature which gives them the mental powers of telepathy with which to police the galaxy, with plenty of now dated rip-roaring adventure, and more than a fair share of Eugenics.

9. The Culture Cycle by Iain M. Banks

Over eight loosely connected books, Scottish author Iain M. Banks, the Culture is described as a grand, a futuristic pan-species society, a liberal anarchy, completely egalitarian and loosely governed by super-intelligent AIs. The world is “post-scarcity”, so completely past any limits of food, health or age. So how do you write stories about such a utopia? Hell, how do you write eight books plus short stories about it? You focus on the people that do the dirty work, and help other societies get closer to joining the Culture.

8. Riverworld by Philip José Farmer

Imagine every human who ever lived was suddenly resurrected on the banks of an unimaginably long river. Every person who had ever lived from the point of early homo sapiens onwards, with all their food needs met and their cultures in conflict. So what happens? Well, a whole bunch of 20th century rock stars play gigs, some people enslave others, and Mark Twain builds a steamboat. As flippant as that may seem, Farmer takes a diverse array of disparate historical figures, liberally mixes in original ones, and sets them the task of figuring out the how and why of their sudden resurrection. While the series does lose its strength in later volumes, it wins massive points for originality, and involving very interesting characters.

7. The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

Describing the Illuminatus! Trilogy is an exercise in foolishness. Massive conspiracies, alternate dimensions, sex, drugs, rock & roll, fnord, all hail Eris Discordia. Everything about the novels borders on post-modern absurdism, which makes them essential reading. It’s a rambling ode to time travel and unreliable narrators. Everybody fucks everybody else, and there’s a rather passive aggressive dwarf. It reads a bit like a darker Hitchhiker’s Guide, packed with black humor and surrealism. Read it, your brain will appreciate the exercise. Fnord.

6. The Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson

For me it was a toss-up wether to choose Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy Bridge trilogy. Both are similar in style, and Gibson’s cyberpunk is in fine form on both series. Sprawl has slightly more known, comprised of the excellent Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), plus three volumes of short stories. These are the archtypical cyberpunk. Those infamous grey skys, console cowboys, cybernetic killing machines and nation sized Zaibatsus. While cyberpunk feels dated under the light of modern technology, it still packs a gritty punch.

5. Michael Moorecock’s Multiverse

Oh boy, the multiverse. Spread over dozens of novels ranging every setting imaginable, Moorecock’s Multiverse is SciFi, Fantasy, and just about every other genre you can think of. There’s steampunk, high fantasy, post-apocalyptic wastelands, time traveling dandies, Russian assassins, evil Sun Gods, and much more. Yet throughout such disparate novels you will constantly find recurring characters in the archetypes of the Eternal Champion, the Lords of Order and the Dukes of Chaos, who battle for control of the multiverse, while others fight for the balance. While it’s impossible to call Moorecock’s most famous character — Elric — SciFi, Jerry Cornelius and the Dancers at the End of Time definitely are.

4. Dune by Frank Herbert

This series is contentious. Few dispute the grandeur and influence of Dune itself, but the sequels (Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune) are more philosophical and at times much harder to follow. Following Dune’s success perhaps Herbert grew self-indulgent. Unfortunately, he died before finishing the final book in the famous series, so we’ll never know how the epic of sandworms and spice will end. And no matter what anybody says, the Brian Herbert/Kevin J. Anderson books NEVER EXISTED!

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

If you haven’t read this five book trilogy, you’re a bad person. Quite possibly the funniest works of the English language, the absurdist comedy of HGttG is an instant barometer of someone’s worth. If they find it funny, they can be considered a decent human being. Any other view should lead to instant shunning and social ostracization. If you have read the books, consider listening to the radio plays as well. They’re slightly different, and provide a bit of a different view on the story. As with Dune, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Eoin Colfer sixth book.

2. Ringworld by Larry Niven

You want to blame anyone for Halo, you might as well level your ire at Niven. If it weren’t for his fantastic stories about an artificial ring planet, hidden deep in space, then the iconic look — and name — of Halo wouldn’t even exist. Technically part of Niven’s significantly larger Known Space series, there are seven books devoted just to this curious alien artifact, filled with genetically altered humans and a vast amount of unimaginable technology. What’s funny is that the sequel to the original book was only written to try and patch up the scientific flaws in the first, due to bitching by fans.

1. The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov

Where do you start with Foundation? Arguably Asimov’s most famous body of work, if won the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, and covers around 500 years of time over seven novels — chronicling the attempts of a small planet at the ass-end of the galaxy to preserver the knowledge of humanity from various dark ages. Guiding them are messages left by the long dead Harry Seldon, who figured out how to mathematically predict the actions of massive groups of humans. To prevent a 30,000 dark age, he sets up a colony at the edge of the galaxy, and falsely tells them they’re to put together an encyclopedia of all knowledge, when their actual task is to shorten those barbaric times down to a single millennium. It’s an amazing set of novels, and rightly deserves its renowned as the greatest series in all of Science Fiction.