Essential Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books Every Gamer Should Read
by Menashe and Theresa Garcia
Hey, remember books? Those things we used to read a lot before video games came along? Well, if you’re still pretty young you may only recognize them from school. I kid, I kid. Of course, books can be really interesting reads and many of them are worth your time. But the truth of the matter is that many gamers were once avid readers, voraciously tearing through any novel that crossed their path. As time went on, though, they found that there wasn’t enough time to read a ton of books, so reading became more of a selective process. Only books that had hearty recommendations and broke into the mainstream consciousness were worth their time. That’s definitely what happened to me over time. As I became a passionate gamer, my reading time plummeted. But, lately, as I’ve married and had three kids, I’ve begun finding my interest in reading again. And I really feel that there are so many sci-fi or fantasy books that gamers would love. Only, due to the sheer mass of books available, they don’t have the time to filter out the really awesome from the “meh.” That’s why I decided to make this list of books which I thought would especially appeal to gaming enthusiasts. That way you don’t have to do all the work. You just read the synopses and if they sounds interesting to you, you can go out and get yourself a copy. And remember, Amazon is your friend.
Note: I’m not a fan of massive twelve-part epic series in which each book spans 1000 pages. I just don’t have the time or concentration for that. So, I’m going to skip out on many fantasy epic series. If you’re a fan of those, you probably already know more about them than I do. Secondly, I opted for books that are easy to read. There are many books (which I happen to love) that are like a masterful thesis on philosophy and human-existentialism. But, often, it takes you a half-hour just to get through one paragraph. My choices in this list are all easier to read. Many of them are brilliantly creative or innovative and offer unique philosophies on life, but they don’t read like a philosophy book or a dictionary.
My Personal Recommendations for Gamers
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi’s book took me somewhat by surprise. In my opinion it’s one of the best sci-fi books of the past decade, possibly the best. An old geezer named John Perry’s wife dies when he’s 75 years old. So, he does what many other geriatrics do before their time runs out: with nothing left to lose, he joins the army up in space. See, the army makes a wonderful proposition to old folk. If you enlist with them, they will transfer your mind-consciousness into a new, young body, while your old body goes brain-dead. Basically, that means you have a healthy body, ready to live on for another century, while retaining the wisdom and maturity of one’s advanced years. What would a community of old folk do if they were given a second lease on life? Could it make them start acting like foolish teenagers again? And how long do they really expect to live in intergalactic warfare against alien races? The innovation of the premise blew my mind, while its witty dialogue and humor kept the book entertaining and easy to read. It seems like it’s a book that isn’t trying to take itself seriously because it’s so much fun to read, while secretly, it is dealing with some of the biggest existential questions human beings ask themselves. It’s a wonderful blend of the philosophical clothed in a garb of humor, action, and breathtaking creativity. I heartily recommend it to any gamer who is looking for a quick and easy read that packs a whallop in their limited time with it.
Ender’s Game – Ender’s Game is my all-time favorite sci-fi book. It’s a book you must read before you die. It’s too hard to describe why it’s so awesome so I’ll try and keep it simple. Earth is losing the war against the alien race known as “the buggers.” As a last resort, the government breeds military geniuses in the hopes of finding one child who has all the qualities and the smarts to pull off an underdog win to save humanity. Ender Wiggins is a genius among geniuses. Meaning, he’s the smartest human being alive. In the military school for these kid geniuses, they train through space ‘war games’, the equivalent of a really sophisticated virtual war video games. Ender rises to the top as a little boy. I’ll stop right here and won’t say more about the plot. Meaning, you now know nothing more than a few chapters worth of the book So, why do I think Ender’s Game is the epitome of all sci-fi? Well, it’s brilliant. It’s complex in its plot and build-up throughout the book, it has scenes and moments that will take you utterly by surprise, its characterizations are ingenious, and the way it’s been thought through makes Christopher Nolan’s intelligence in the plots of Memento and Inception look shallow in comparison. And all of this takes place in a sci-fi, military war-game/video-game type scenario that will give gamers a real thrill.
Dune – Whereas I consider Ender’s Game to be the best sci-fi novel of all time, the rest of the world probably considers Dune to be the best sci-fi book of all time. Or at least the most important. People say, Dune is to sci-fi as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. I like to say, after reading Dune, I lost a lot of my respect for Star Wars because I felt the whole concept of the Jedis was taken from Dune. Also, Dune is the master at space-politics. And unlike Star Wars, it’s very interesting. It does the whole political scheming and backstabbing more similarly to Game of Thrones. It’s a war of noble houses up in space, with an entire fantastical planet setting, full of mysterious races like the nomadic Fremen, a hellish desert world, the “spice” drug which allows for prophetic hallucinations, the giant space worms, and the jedi-like powers of Paul Atreides. There’s one thing to note, though, when reading Dune for the first time. For the first chapter or two, it can be hard to get into. It suddenly throws at you tons of new terminologies and made-up concepts that you have no clue about their meaning. But, once you get past the first 20 pages or so, you won’t look back. Dune has influenced so many of our favorite sci-fi video games (I’m looking at you Mass Effect) that it’s definitely an essential for every gamer to read.
Snow Crash – It’s hard for me to describe why I like Snow Crash so much. I think it’s a mix between the writing style and the way it portrays a surreal America-of-the-future. There’s a lot of outrageous and bizarre elements to the story that add to the appeal. Basically, Snow Crash is a cyberpunk world where the internet has evolved into the avatar-filled virtual reality of the Metaverse, Wikipedia + Youtube have become the massive CIC library where anything can be checked up about anybody and uploaded videos can reward you with money if they are found useful by others. And a new virus called Snow Crash threatens the very destruction of the world as its infection spreads beyond the computer, seeping into reality. Hiro Protagonist, a hacker, double katana-wielding swordsman, and pizza-delivery guy, tries to get to the bottom of who’s behind the outbreak and stop it at all costs.
A Wizard of Earthsea – Lord of the Rings was first published in 1955. A Wizard of Earthsea came out in 1968. And to me, they are the two foundations upon which all of fantasy rest upon. Every massive fantasy epic has drawn some inspiration from Tolkien’s work, even if it provides its own spin on things. In the same way, every fantasy book that tells a tale of a young boy from a small village who gets trained until he eventually becomes a master sorcerer and saves the world from a terrible evil wizard – has crafted from the mold set by Ursula Le Guin. Even Harry Potter is just A Wizard of Earthsea placed in a modern day setting. In my opinion, Ursula is the most impressive sci-fi/fantasy writer of all time, making waves with the Earthsea trilogy, The Dispossessed, and Left Hand in Darkness. Although I enjoyed The Dispossessed the most of these, I decided to include Earthsea because it’s an easier read and for the influence it had on the future of the fantasy genre. It’s a book any gamer will appreciate as he sees how many other sources have drawn from it.
Name of the Wind – Whereas Lord of the Rings is classic fantasy, Name of the Wind is a more recent fantasy book (2009) that is sure to become a classic. The writing style is lusciously written, making each sentence a pleasure to read, as the flowing style of the word-play rolls around on your tongue. The world-setting is lovingly crafted and you will get drawn into the intricacies of the details as the world slowly becomes endearing to you. The main character, Kvothe, is a legend. He is the hero and villain in hundreds of tales that spread across the land. A biographer named Chronicler finds him retired and in-hiding, working as a bartender in a small inn. He convinces Kvothe to recount to him, first-hand, the story of his life and how he came to be such a notorious magician. The Name of the Wind is Kvothe’s retelling of the tales that made him a walking legend. If your time is limited and you want to choose a great fantasy novel of the past five years, without wasting time on thousands of others beckoning to you on the shelves of bookstores, this one is guaranteed to please you.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War – What do Resident Evil, The Walking Dead, Dead Rising, and Left 4 Dead have in common? Zombies, of course. Shouldn’t Zombies be included in a horror list rather than fantasy/sci-fi, you ask? If I was being restricting and precise, they wouldn’t belong on this list. But since they contain a supernatural element and they are so common in the current-day entertainment environment, I figured it would be informative to include zombies under a fantasy-horror element. Plus, a movie and video game are already in the works.
World War Z is the definitive zombie novel. It could easily top the list of any post-apocalyptic or zombie book list. Max Brooks tells the story of the world’s desperate battle against the zombie threat with a series of first-person accounts by various characters around the world. A Chinese doctor encounters one of the earliest zombie cases at a time when the Chinese government is ruthlessly suppressing any information about the outbreak that will soon spread across the globe. The tale then follows the outbreak via testimony of smugglers, intelligence officials, military personnel and many others who struggle to defeat the zombie menace. Only a handful of people have survived, and this is their story.
The Stand – Once we’re in post-apocalyptic territory, let’s discuss the best post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy book. Then along came Stephen King. “I got a chance to scrub the whole human race. And, man, it was fun!” King said of his highest voted book according to his fans. The Stand features no zombies and was inspired by fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings. Yes, I did just say that. See, King imagines the worst: a computer error in a Defense Department lab unleashes a superflu that mutates and wipes out more than 99% of the world’s population. But what actually happens is that it paves the way for an edge-of-doom clash between Good and Evil. There’s a lot of metaphysical in this book, which is why I don’t mind including it in a list for fantasy and sci-fi novels.
The characters in the book begin dreaming about an old woman who is marshaling the forces of good, while a malignant ‘presence’ is amassing an army to do his bid of evil. With a plot set on such a wide scope you would expect the character development to be underdeveloped. But the opposite it true. Similar to how Tolkien made a cast of characters endearing, or the TV series, Lost, managed to take an ensemble cast and give proper backdrop to each individual, King also treats his starring lineup with the respect they deserve. Mixing elements of science fiction, horror, fantasy, post-apocalypse, philosophy, and the metaphysical, The Stand is Stephen King at his best. (For other post-apocalyptic good-reads, check out I Am Legend, The Road, and Planet of the Apes.)
Neuromancer – I actually have just begun reading Neuromancer, but I’m including it on this list because I have friends who practically worship this book, and it was the masterpiece that became synonymous with the genre of ‘cyberpunk.’ (Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’.) I’ll just quote the hyperbolic praise from the Amazon.com review:
“Here is the novel that started it all, launching the cyberpunk generation, and the first novel to win the holy trinity of science fiction: the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. With Neuromancer, William Gibson introduced the world to cyberspace–and science fiction has never been the same.
Case was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway–jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, soaring through tactile lattices of data and logic, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way–and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the meat of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance–and a cure–for a price.”
Watchmen – Watchmen is the epitome of graphic novels (I even enjoyed the film by Zack Sknyder.) It’s dark, complex, and evinces the skilled writing of Alan Moore. Watchmen isn’t like other superhero comics. It isn’t fun, cool, or purely visual. It is intelligent and deals with the side of humanity that other superhero tales possibly are attempting to distract you from. Superman and Batman are dedicated to truth and justice. Watchmen’s superheroes are full of corruption, deceit, and the lust for power. The story is simple: Someone is killing off or discrediting the former Crimebusters. The members who remain alive try and find out who is behind it all, in an attempt to save their own lives. The whodunit mystery has a great payoff in the end. But, it’s the characters behind the super-powered individuals that make the story so compelling. Dr. Manhattan dealing with his responsibility to humanity given his god-like powers. Nite-Owl having trouble leaving it all behind. And Rorschach being examined by a psychiatrist. If you’re a gamer who likes superheroes but wishes they had more sophistication and intelligence in their stories, Watchmen will be right up your alley.
Starship Troopers – Starship Troopers (1959) is Robert A Heinlein’s brilliant and early sci-fi novel. The book is a first person narrative of Juan “Johnny” Rico’s military career starting from his time in high school before even enlisting. Starship Troopers is an easy book to read with Rico’s narrative being simple and straight forward but also bluntly honest. What you get is a fantastic and romantic view of a future military that also manages to seem jaded. I was expecting an action story much like the movie and TV show but what I received was something entirely different and I’m glad for that. For a military sci-fi novel, Starship Troopers has a surprisingly little amount of actual combat. This works well with the style of the novel because it shows how detached Rico is about the whole thing, he glosses over battles and deaths like they never happened. And we should never forget that in this book, Heinlein popularized Power Armor. Power Armor is the part of the book that had possibly the biggest influence I’ve seen come out of Starship Troopers with other books and even movies, games and comics featuring them. But beyond Power Armor, Starship Troopers is just a lovely story that would make a good addition to anyone’s bookshelf.
Halting State – State may not be quite as great of a literary achievement as the other award winners on this list but its unique perspective is one that gamers, more than any others, will appreciate. To the less tech-savvy reader, the book may sound like gibberish, but if you are part of the gaming world then you’ll get the lingo. Before we get on to the plot, one of the more fascinating aspects of the book is that it was written in the second-person style of a retro text-adventure. “You come across an article that lists book recommendations for gamers. You bookmark it for later and make sure to spread it across the vast interwebs and social networks.”
The story starts with a crime committed in an MMORPG, one of hundreds administered by Hayek Associates, in a world where people willingly pay cash to buy in-game products. (Sound familar? Six years ago that might have been fiction, but now it’s reality.) Imagine if the economy for such a thing was much greater, as the MMORPG is no longer just a video game, but a virtual world. The three central characters all try to investigate the mystery inside the MMORPG. But, it turns into something much larger, bleeding into reality. Because it’s at future time when everything is connected to the internet, even your oven. So, when things start to mess with the virtual world, it’s not long before the real world feels the sting.
The Player of Games – I LOVE Ian M. Banks. Ok, it’s probably more accurate to say that I love his books and his writing style. All of his “Culture” sci-fi books are instantly readable, full of memorable action and set-pieces, weaving elaborate space-operas, and offer a full dose of wit and intelligence. So, I had to think hard about which book of his I should include. (Meaning, if you can: read them all.) Since one of his books deals with games, it seemed like The Player of Games would be most relevant to gamers.
One man, named Gurgeh, is the best video game player of all time. In fact, he is the Player of Games, master of all video, board, and strategy games. Bored with the competition, and looking for a new challenge, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad to try their ultimate game; a game that is so life-like that the winner gets to become the emperor. But there are no continues in this game. Game Over means death… Just wait until the plots and counterplots get started. Things won’t be easy for Gurgeh.
Perdido Street Station – Here’s a disclaimer: If you can’t picture in your mind the images painted through the words of a book, then this one isn’t for you. But, if you dream of the author who has the ability to put down on paper such vivid imagery as to conjure up the fantastical creatures, races, and settings that he sees in his mind’s eye, then this will be the best book you ever picked up. I loved it. But, I must admit that it can take a long time getting through each sentence, as Mieville has the largest vocabulary I’ve ever seen. It’s like he has every synonym on his fingertips. I don’t think I can describe the scope of his creative genius accurately so I’ll quote from Amazon.com:
“New Crobuzon is a phantasmagorical tapestry of weirdly modified humans, from races of cactus to bird to frog to ant-men, a technology that is an equally crazy quilt of steam power, magic, electric-powered clockwork for heightened psi-powers, a political structure that could come straight from Stalin’s Russia complete with deals with an all-too-real Satan and a world-thread artist spider known simply as the Weaver, a trash-heap conscious computer, and intimations of a history and wider world that is even more fantastic.” “It’s got love, loss, crime, riots, mad scientists, drugs, art, corruption, demons, dreams, obsession, magic, aliens, subversion, torture, dirigibles, romantic outlaws, artificial intelligence, and dangerous cults.”
Sandman – The Sandman saga is one of the most cherished series in all of comicdom. It’s not like most comic books. There’s no superhero intent on defeating an evil supervillain for the good of mankind. Instead, a group of magicians want to capture the embodiment of the concept of Death but instead capture the the essence of the Dream. He stays caged for decades, and, when he finally escapes, he has to find his tools. While most of the books in the series are better than the first, it’s a good entry point for newcomers. All of Gaiman’s tales are richly embedded with mythology, analogies, and philosophy, but are told through vivid imagery and poignant storytelling. If you stick with the series, you will fall in love with it.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner) – So, if you’ve watched Blade Runner then is there anything more for this book to offer? Yes. Ridley Scott took a lot of the book’s material but also threw away a lot of the elements that didn’t work well for the big screen. The book is more atmospheric and more compelling than the movie with lots of inventive ideas (I love the idea of the mood-organ that can alter your mood for whatever’s on your agenda that day.) One of the lasting questions in the book is: how can you tell if you are real or Android? And this question is more pertinent in the book precisely because the Androids are portrayed in such a human way that it’s hard to tell who is what. If you’ve seen the movie and enjoyed it, it’s time for you to read the book. And while you’re at it, I’d also recommend tracking down the computer game.
Mainstream Popular Books/Series
Let’s just get these out of the way. My list is not about these books. These are the ones that already made a household name for themselves and you don’t really need me to tell you that they exist. But, I know that if I don’t mention them, I’ll get hundreds of comments below hollering at me for not including them. So, if you haven’t heard of these yet, it’s time for you to come out of your cave and head to the nearest book store:
A Song of Ice and Fire series
The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Harry Potter 1-7
Chronicles of Narnia
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
His Dark Materials Trilogy
Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle)
Sorry, no Twilight on this list! Although I would recommend reading the Hunger Games books even though the movie was geared towards teenage romantics.