Science fiction covers a lot of ground. With technological and scientific breakthroughs, much of what we held as science fiction has become a reality over the past decade alone. When I was asked to write this post, I spent many long hours trying to narrow down what I would consider to be the very best in science fiction. Ultimately, I arrived at the volumes below.
Despite what you may think of any other books in the franchise that came after this one, Frank Herbert's Dune is the book that laid the groundwork for truly epic science fiction. Politics, religion, cultural clashes, genetics, philosophy, and more come together in this book with a fictional history dating back many thousands of years. Frank Herbert had everything from the smallest piece of technology all the way up to the overarching evolution of species and worlds worked out before this was ever published in its entirety.
An utterly brilliant “first contact” novel, Grass is one of the most thoroughly thought out world building exercises I have ever read. In this book, travelers from Earth, bringing with them only their essentials (including their religious beliefs) encounter alien species who overtly seem primitive, only to find that they have landed themselves in the middle of a conflict where they will have to make the right decisions or perish. Sheri S. Temper incorporates politics, telepathy, and inter-species symbiosis on a world humans landed on out of hubris, which turns to humility and desperation.
One could easily make the argument that every science fiction story that has an established empire (I don't have enough fingers to point at all of the culprits) which is opposed by a small group, probably drew ideas from Orwell's Oceana, where emotion, the arts, and individualism are prohibited. Orwell did a fantastic job of presenting a seemingly utopian sociaty with cracks in its facade, and the measures used to break those who sought to overthrow it.
Books involving robots were written before Asimov, and many more since he passed on, but everything from the Laws governing machines up to and beyond humans giving up free will for machines to become our masters (and eventual caretakers) is covered in this epic series about galactic expansion. Asimov wrote many articles about the state of technology and even speculative articles for Popular Mechanics, and his ability to prognosticate was very accurate (looking back through his works from the year 2012).
I was hesitant to include this one, simply because it's more of a collection of short stories than anything else. However, Bradbury shows (through the eyes of many characters) the different conflicts that arise from humans colonizing Mars – from the willingness to adapt, to the savagery we bring with us by clinging to some of our more outdated social beliefs.
Wait...no Clarke? No Heinlein? No Philip K. Dick? I can almost hear the outrage through my monitor. "Top 5" is a short list, and there are myriad works of science fiction that could be argued to be among the "best" of the genre. I certainly welcome your opinions and any additions to this list in the comments section.