#2. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
What You Know Him For:
Snow Crash, The Baroque Cycle, other giant books you could kill a bear with
(Forgive me if I'm dwelling a bit on cyberpunk, but this column is doing double duty as a thinly veiled promo for the paperback release of my own cyberpunk novel. Just count yourselves lucky that "Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, now in paperback!" isn't #5-#3 on this list.)
Snow Crash was about a frenetic and callous future, full of corporate enclaves, cyber-samurai pizza delivery men, brain-hacking Sumerian phonemes, and -- this may be me mentally remixing a few scenes -- I think a giant Eskimo statutory raped a nuclear bomb at the end.
Snow Crash put Stephenson on the map, but even its avid defenders (read: me) have to admit it's pretty juvenile in places. Of course, there's nothing wrong with juvenile -- my own book features a psychotic ghetto king who lives in a stairwell and wears a glittering nanotech phallus for a crown, so I'm not throwing stones at the maturity house here -- but his later works seemed to make up for that immaturity a bit too hard. Now he almost exclusively writes dense techno-bibles for serious-minded military history fetishists. Which, again, are totally great, if that's your thing.
But somewhere between action-porn for teenage boys playing Shadowrun and reference manuals for retired West Point professors, Neal Stephenson wrote a coming-of-age techno-thriller for preteen girls, and it was amazing. The Diamond Age predicted cloud computing (although it did think the "cloud" was an underwater hippie orgy) and explored 3D printing and nanotech back when we all thought that was some kind of anime. And it did so while spinning an earnest and meaningful tale about the importance of stories to a little girl growing up so far below the poverty line that it disappeared into the horizon and became a poverty vanishing point. Somehow, The Diamond Age manages to teach you about the dangers of coddling children, the importance of storytelling, and the basics of coding (accomplished via magical castle, of course), and still caps it all off with the Boxer Rebellion if the Chinese had power mechs.
#1. Kalki, by Gore Vidal
What You Know Him For:
Lincoln, Empire, witty repartee from your well-read gay friends
And now I'm pulling a Murakami again: Seriously, Gore Vidal on a list of sci-fi authors? He was an old-school intellectual covered in a fine but impenetrable coating of bastard. Vidal is most famous for his serious, depraved pseudo-non-fiction of American history, and getting Norman Mailer to punch him. If any combination of terms can lose the interest of a sci-fi nerd, it is the preceding.
But then he also wrote books like Live from Golgotha, which mixed reality TV and time travel with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and The Smithsonian Institution, which was what you'd get if the porno parody of Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum had a Harvard education. And then Vidal wrote Kalki. It's Stephen King's The Stand without all the offensive stereotypes and weird folksy religion. It's Mad Max meets Hemingway, or perhaps The Road meets The Great Gatsby. It's a high-minded, cultured, intelligent, and a bit effeminate chronicle of the end of the world. It is unflinching, grand in scope, and most importantly, truly post-apocalyptic. None of this weak sauce "a lot of people died but we're still holding on to society" stuff. Kalki is about like five people in a completely intact but totally dead world. All the cities stand just as they were, but there are no people left, save for the main characters. It hits the wish-fulfillment button in every post-apocalypse fan every bit as hard as it pulls the despair lever in every human being.
So there you go: Think you can do better? Shit, I'm pretty drunk right now. You're probably right. Give it a shot: Think of a famous sci-fi book everybody's at least heard of, and then give us the book by the same author that we should be reading instead. With any luck, we'll all have reading lists a thousand entries long.
Wait, I just realized I wrote a tie-in piece to sell my book and used all my time telling you about better books you should buy instead. And then I requested that you look at hundreds more in the comments! What is my fucking problem?!