Last updated: 2013/05/06.
I'm surprised by the number of would-be writers I meet who never read outside their comfort zones. If they write SF, they tend to read a lot of it — which isn't bad by itself, just self-limiting. It's never a bad thing to know the parameters of the very field you want to write for, but to be habitually locked inside of it is a formula for self-starvation.
In no way should this list be considered canonical or otherwise absolute. It's simply a series of suggestions from a tour guide, someone who has been over this territory and come away with a few words about the sights. It's a way to know what else is out there, and to have it suggested to you in a way that ought to be appealing. Expect additions to the list over time as well.
The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
The Gist: The greatest adventure story ever written, next to The Three Musketeers (and by the same author, too), and one of the most widely-used as a basis for other stories. Everything from The Stars My Destination to Oldboy borrowed a few bricks from Dumas's building in one form or another.
Why: Worldbuilding; drama; pacing; scope. Dumas's encyclopedic imagination made him a crackerjack worldbuilder — yes, even if the world he was building was just a recreation of his own 19th-century Europe — and he puts something on every single page that makes you want to turn to the next one, all 1,200 of them. A great case study for how to tell an epic story in one volume, albeit one very big one. Dumas's The Three Musketeers also comes highly recommended, especially in the new translation that blows all the dust off Dumas's language.
The King Must Die (Mary Renault)
The Gist: A retelling of the myth of Theseus, grounded in real-world history, geography, and psychology. One of a number of cited influences for The Hunger Games.
Why: Anyone interested in creating a story that takes place in "another time, another place", or one based on an existing piece of mythology, should give this a read. Renault humanizes her characters without making them prosaic, and finds endless ways to bring you into the setting via concrete, meticulous detail. It's also a splendid example of how writing doesn't have to be self-conscious and showy to be beautiful. The rest of her historical novels (Fire from Heaven, in particular) are all worth a look, too.
Musashi (Eiji Yoshikawa)
The Gist: A retelling of the career of master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, originally serialized over a period of five years, and the inspiration for both live-action movies and manga.
Why: It's a great story, period. Great enough that it was adapted into any number of other formats — movies (multiple times), manga (as Vagabond), etc. Also serves as an example of how Japan's own modernist-populist storytellers eschewed flowery detail for direct, spare, and vivid action. For a shorter, but no less rambunctious and absorbing story, also check out Yasushi (Tun-huang) Inoue's Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan.
The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
The Gist: A British war correspondent encounters the naïve young American of the title, in 1950s Indochina, and finds himself in conflict with him over many things — not least of all the woman they share.
Why: Among the finest of novels about the vagaries and difficulties of real-world politics, and also about the contrasts between Old World, New World and Third World. Also one of the least sentimental stories told about any of the above topics, which makes it all the more essential. Greene wrote voluminously and most any of his books are worth it, but this is both the best place to start and the most relevant, even decades later. (For a parallel reading experience, check out The Year of Living Dangerously, which was made into the film of the same name.)
The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki)
The Gist: Widely acknowledged as the first novel by the modern definition of the word, this sprawling tale of a time and a place long gone explores in meticulous detail the life of a privileged young man surrounded by courtly intrigue and meticulous etiquette.
Why: Before you run off and invent your own land of elegance and ritual, where things happen on their own time scale, use this as a crash course for how such things actually went down a thousand-plus years ago. Just remember that it's a story best savored on its own terms; patience is a virtue.
The Gist: A fiction-from-fact adventure story about how a massive cache of Buddhist literature and artifacts came to be concealed in the caves near Tun-Huang in China over a thousand years ago.
Why: As with The King Must Die, a great example of an another-time-another-place story, told with a directness and simplicity that shows up far more elaborate contenders. A great model for how you can tell an epic story in less than two hundred pages. (Some people feel the storytelling is dry, but look past the quiet, methodical surface and you'll see a hugely emotional and engrossing tale.) For a similar approach to the life of Genghis Khan, check out The Blue Wolf (reviewed by me here).
U.S.A. Trilogy (John Dos Passos)
The Gist: Three novels that assemble a wide-ranging mosaic of the United States during the 1920s.
Why: Some of its experimental writing and stylistic conceits have not dated well, but for sheer panorama — an attempt to encompass nothing less than the whole of a society at all its levels — it's still worth checking out. Many SF books (in particular, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar) owe it a debt.
WE (Evgeny Zamyatin)
The Gist: The blueprint for most every dystopian novel written in the 20th century. D-503, engineer, diarist, denizen of a mathematically-exact future society, records his daily life for the eventual inclusion in the cargo of the spaceship his society is building to bring "perfection" to the rest of the universe. Would that it were all that simple, of course.
Why: Aside from containing the seeds for 1984 and Brave New World, which makes it essential reading by itself, Zamyatin's book is far funnier than either of them (even Huxley's wit ultimately gave way to pensive gloom), and has barely dated. Techno-utopianism and the perfectability of human life are still fiercely-debated subjects, and Zamyatin's insights seem more relevant than ever.
The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (Will Cuppy)
The Gist: History with the dust blown off, the volume turned up, and the audience's ribs tickled until they wet their pants. Cuppy's other books include How to Tell Your Friends from The Apes and How To Become Extinct.
Why: For those who want to cultivate a Douglas Adams-esque sense of irreverence. (In the same vein, although more blatantly parodic, is W.C. Sellar / Steven Appleby's 1066 And All That.)
The Gist: This is a book about the mystery of intelligence — yes, one of those kinds of books, but how it approaches its subject matter makes all the difference. Instead of walking us through the subject by the hand, Hofstader uses storytelling, metaphor, biography, game-playing, fiction and fantasy, and the lives and work of the three titular figures as reference points on his map. The book doesn't so much draw conclusions as it shows different ways to think about its subjects.
Why: Artificial intelligence; metaphorical explanations; how to talk about a complex web of subjects in an engrossing way. And because it's like absolutely nothing else before or since.
The Gist: A journalist went undercover for years on end to document the inner workings of the Camorra, the organized-crime syndicate that runs Naples and has international reach. The book became a bestseller, and exposed enough of the criminal machinery of the Camorra that the author had to go into hiding.
Why: Anyone who goes to such lengths to tell the world about what's going on in some dark part of it deserves to have their story heard. But beyond that, SF&F writers should pay attention to this story to have some idea of what a society is like when you turn the rocks over.
In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
The Gist: Two drifters pair up and kill a farming family, for reasons both banal and inexplicable. Capote never did anything else remotely this good, which made it a career-ending experience for him instead of just a career-defining one.
Why: The book that defined modern non-fiction writing, especially modern non-fiction crime writing. Proof that a "true story" doesn't have to be boring, and can be observed with the same pathos and tragedy as the most inventive of fiction.
The Gist: Veteran New York journalist casts an acerbic and amused eye across the cityscape of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, interviewing every manner of weirdo, wild-one, wacko, and wunderkind that crosses his past. Best and saddest is the story of Joe Gould, veteran Bowery bum and self-professed professor of life, whose secret has tragic consequences for both him and Mitchell.
Why: A great glimpse at a way of life — well, whole ways of life, plural — that have since simply ceased to exist, all expressed in a tone of voice that just about defined the snappy newspaper reporter cliché. Read it as much for the flavor of the time he depicts as for the voice it's all related in.