The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – On the day the Earth is destroyed to make room for a new galactic freeway, hapless Englishman Arthur Dent is abducted by his best friend – now revealed to be a stranded extraterrestrial hitchhiker – and thrust into an absurd cosmic odyssey. The sequels are uneven, but the original remains a comedy classic.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov – One of the all-time classics of the genre. The Galactic Empire has stood, peaceful and orderly, for twelve thousand years, but pioneering mathematician and sociologist Hari Seldon’s new equations show that the Empire is set on an irreversible path of decay that will lead to thirty thousand years of war, barbarism and savagery. Seldon and a secret group of scientists launch an audacious plan – to use science, art and psychology to shorten the coming dark age to a single millennium, preserving the best of human culture to rise again in a new and better world. On a hidden planet at the edge of the galaxy, the Foundation is born.
The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – While humanity flourishes on rich and decadent off-world colonies, with every “Spacer’s” need attended to by dozens of expertly-programmed robots, the hive cities of the overcrowded Earth are warrens of crime and decay where resources are scarce and every man lives in fear of losing his job to a robot. When a prominent Spacer scientist is murdered on Earth, inciting a diplomatic incident, New York City detective Elijah Bailey is given the impossible task of solving the case with the help of a flawlessly logical android partner; and if he can’t, it’s not only his job in jeopardy, but the entire future of mankind.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks – In the Culture, a galactic society of nearly limitless resources and power, where disease and even death are long since things of the past, the biggest challenge of all is boredom – and Gurgeh, a galactic celebrity and master player of the galaxy’s most complicated games, is bored. So the minds behind the Culture give Gurgeh a challenge: travel thousands of light years, away from all the comfort and safety he has ever known, to the distant Empire of Azad, a brutal alien regime whose rulers play a game so lifelike, so complicated, that the winner becomes Emperor.
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – Gully Foyle was a completely ordinary, dull and unambitious man until, stranded in space after a wreck, a luxurious cruise liner could have picked him up – but didn’t. Consumed with vengeance, Foyle finds his way home and begins a merciless hunt for answers, brutalizing anyone who stands between him and the interplanetary billionaire who left him to die.
The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold – Hyperactive young heir Miles Vorkosigan is the galaxy’s greatest adventurer – foiling assassinations, stopping wars, freeing slaves and smashing interstellar crime syndicates, and he does it all while being four feet tall and afflicted with brittle-bone disease. Fans of a certain other smart-alecky dwarf are guaranteed to enjoy Miles’s adventures, as will anyone who enjoys a well-written, fun, and adventurous space opera romp.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – Into the solar system at tremendous speed comes an object, roughly cylindrical-shaped, thirty miles long and five in diameter. Earth scrambles its best and brightest to intercept the object, go inside, learn its mysteries – and survive.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – The (considerably different!) inspiration for the classic film Blade Runner. In the near future, most of Earth’s richest and most successful have left the planet for the comfort of the off-world colonies, leaving an underpopulated and decaying world behind. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who specializes in capturing human-like androids who have escaped from their slave labor offworld, is given the job of catching six deadly Nexus-6 models who have nearly killed his partner, but soon learns he has trouble distinguishing between the real and the artificial.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – In an alternate world where the Axis won World War II, it is the 1960s and everyday life goes on in an America now split between Japan in the west and Germany in the east. A small group of ordinary people are caught up in an international manhunt for the author of a controversial banned book that tells the story of an alternate universe where the Allies won the war…
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger – An often-overlooked cyberpunk classic of the mid-1980s. In the Budayeen – the energetic, mysterious, and dangerous foreign quarter of a futuristic Middle Eastern metropolis – business never sleeps, and neither does a hard-bitten private investigator tasked with apprehending a savage serial killer.
Neuromancer by William Gibson – The original cyberpunk novel, a triumph of style and vision. In the mid-21st century, national governments have been supplanted by powerful and ruthless mega-corporations, and the dangerous mean streets are also the last free place on Earth. Case, a former master hacker on a self-destructive spiral of drugs and petty crime, is given a second chance by a mysterious employer; his mission, to assemble a team of experts to pull off the most daring heist in history.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – A year after her father went missing in the 9/11 attacks, Cayce Pollard lives a comfortable, jet-setting lifestyle as a consultant with a talent for identifying hot new trends in marketing. But she’s drawn into a digital netherworld when a mysterious billionaire makes her an offer she can’t refuse: information about her father in exchange for tracking down the anonymous creator of a series of cryptic video clips appearing on the Internet, a quest that will take her from Europe to America to Japan and beyond.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman – William Mandella is a conscript in Earth’s military, sent to defend human colonies in space against the mysterious Tauran species. But because of relativistic time dilation, battles that only take weeks for Mandella move him years or decades into the future.
Dune by Frank Herbert – In the distant future, all of mankind is united in a galaxy-spanning feudal empire, maintained over millennia by a careful balance of power between noble houses, guilds, and religious institutions, and fueled by Spice, a powerful drug that makes space travel possible and that is only found on the forbidding planet Dune. When the popular and righteous House Atreides is given control of Dune and commanded to increase spice output, their enemies launch a deadly attack, but young Paul Atreides soon learns to use religion, guerrilla warfare, and the planet’s own ecology to fight back.
A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. – After the devastation of World War III, one group of monks in the American Southwest dedicate themselves to the enormous task of preserving the old world’s culture and science for the days when it will be needed again. A humane and haunting story.