Giants of science fiction

1 Time Machine poster

Science Fiction is a popular genre of literature and there are many types of SF published. But many of them are not truly, or fully, SF, just good books marketed as such. Epic fantasy or sword and sorcery, many utopias or dystopias, and space opera, to name a few sub genres, are really adventure stories, social novels set in the future, or satires. I wanted a short list, so I settled on the criterion of books with innovative speculative concepts, and restricted my list to ‘classic’, that is, generally accepted as the best of the field. I have also applied my idea of good writing, and regretfully thrown out once favourite authors like Alfred Bester, Roger Zelazny, James Tiptree, Isaac Asimov and Aldous Huxley. Many, many people read SF, and there are many lists much longer than mine. These below are books that seem to me to be well written, highly praised, and which explore other worlds with sometimes startling effect. Another list is here:

When Stanislaw Lem’s book Microworlds was published in 1984 it offended many SF fans. The book was a collection of essays in which Lem argued that if SF was anything more than pulp fiction published for the entertainment of an audience lacking all critical discrimination, it must be restricted to examination of the work of just three authors: HG Wells, Philip K Dick, and the Strugatsky brothers. Philip K Dick, in talking about science fiction in the preface to his collected short stories, defined it as a story or novel in which a new concept or idea is introduced, which is truly new, and which stimulates the reader’s imagination with its newness. SF is about ideas, thought Dick, not character. There’s a couple of stimulating ideas most fans will disagree with. Along the way it will be noticed that using criteria to judge SF removed the genre label from these works, and includes books not usually thought of as SF, while excluding many which are. So my attempt to choose can never be definitive, which I’m happy about.

The Time Machine: HG Wells 1895

1 HG Wells

HG Wells is one of the great English novelists, and his social novels  such as Kipps, Mr Polly and Tono-Bungay, may well be more significant an achievement than his ‘romances’, written early in his career. But between 1895 and 1901 Wells published five romances that defined the genre of science fiction (though he himself was not aware of it). The first of these was The Time Machine, in 1895. All five books express a nightmare feeling of doom at the excesses of science and its reaction on society. One, The Island of Dr Moreau, is a horror story akin to Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; another, The Invisible Man, is written as a dark comedy. Wells’ was aware of the conflict between France and Germany that was to break out 1914-1918. His War of the Worlds, though concerned with alien invasion, is an expression of this apprehension. But the vision of the future in The Time Machine was near to a hopeless one. Mankind, for all its ingenuity, would fall victim to a fatal division in society evident in Wells’ day, and finally, in the distant future, when the earth was rotating about a red giant sun, fade from view completely. The story is marred by a conventional romance, a beautiful Eloi and her jealous suitor, and a rather predictable ending, but is haunting in its effect as only the best nightmares can be. Wells’ new idea was, is time a dimension like depth, breadth and height and can it be navigated; can time be relative to space? He thought he had pre-empted Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. (The idea of time as dimensionless, and past, present and future mere concepts added by the human mind, was expressed in 1927 by JW Dunne in An Experiment with Time, a book that influenced Wells and Olaf Stapledon). Wells’ short stories, most written during the period of his romances, are also essential reading. Time Machine other books by Wells

Star Maker: Olaf Stapledon 1937

2 Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon was a British philosopher who started writing fiction to get his ideas across to a wider public. He also supported co-operative ways to gain peace and oppose intolerance such as antiapartheid. He succeeded in his aims, becoming an outstandingly good writer and considered one of the most influential in SF. Star Maker is his finest work, full of staggering concepts of how the universe might be viewed by enhanced consciousnesses. Other books of note include Odd John, the sad story of a superman, and Sirius, a tale of a dog with human consciousness. Star Maker is at once a work of spirituality, dealing with the nature of the divine, and a deeply involving story of the narrator’s developing awareness of what the universe means. The only person who has attempted something as ambitious was Dante. In the book an unnamed narrator falls asleep on a hillside (as did Dante) and is transported to a place outside the earth, where he meets another soul who shows him an alternative earth. The two mysteriously are able to merge and so communicate instantly. The now enhanced being becomes aware, because of its enhanced nature, that another being that inhabits the solar system can communicate with them/it, if they merge in the same way. And so on, a story of developing visions of the majesty of the cosmos as experienced by what is becoming a super being. Slowly the unified being at its greatest extent becomes aware of a star maker who might be at the heart of what they are experiencing, the very life of the universe. They begin to learn why the star maker does what he does, but are unable to sustain the vision, and the narrator finds himself back on the hillside where he fell asleep. There’s not many books like this. Stapledon’s idea is consciousness expansion, achieved through symbiosis. Star Maker other books by Stapledon

Roadside Picnic: The Strugatsky Brothers 1972

3 Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have a dual reputation. In Eastern Europe they are modern classics, read by everyone. In English speaking countries they are merely among the greatest of all SF writers. While Roadside Picnic is their best known work, many other titles, such as Hard to Be a God, Monday Begins on Saturday, The Ugly Swans and Definitely Maybe are all rewarding. Translations vary in quality. Roadside Picnic seems to be about an alien visitation to earth. Unlike other visits, this is not an invasion. It seems to be a stopover, a roadside picnic, leaving a number of areas seemingly littered with mysterious objects. The new idea here is that aliens may travel to earth and not even notice humans and their culture. Humans may not be the centre of things. Illicit traders called stalkers (hence the title of the Tarkovsky film) enter the zone to acquire artefacts which they sell on the black-market, and Roadside Picnic is the story of one of them, a man called Redrick, whose girlfriend Guta falls pregnant. There is risk of a mutated offspring for stalkers, but the couple go ahead, marry and have their child, who does indeed prove to be a mutation. Dodging pressure from what are presumably terrorists for a substance in the zone called witch’s jelly which seems to remove bone structure from human beings, Redrick is at last forced to supply it. Full of remorse, he goes to the zone one last time looking for a substance said to grant wishes and called golden sphere, wishing to make his daughter a normal human. His daughter though has died. Redrick uses the sphere to wish for everyone’s happiness. The book is the story of a corrupt man who becomes generous, an ignorant man who becomes wise. The book uses the SF context as a metaphor for a study of an existential crisis. It is both a so called metafiction as well as a SF work. Roadside Picnic other books by the Strugatskys

Ubik: Philip K Dick 1969

4 Philip K Dick android

Philip K Dick is the man who invented the 21st century. Exploited by pulp publishers in his lifetime and by Hollywood action film moguls after his death, Dick was forced to create at a furious pace just to stay alive. As a result, Dick’s work is scattered with the most original inventions in SF, in the midst of prose dictated by space requirements or overindulgence in amphetamines. You have to look for it. It’s often in the background detail, like the use of robots as news vendors or automatic pilots. Machines are central in his work, one of his most common questions being, what is human? And characters often ‘invent’ other characters, dream them or imagine them real when they are not. Dick’s other ‘big’ question is, what is real? Solar Lottery, Time Out of Joint, The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and at least some of his ‘mainstream’  novels, like Mary and the Giant, are all essential reading, as are the collected short stories, whose themes fertilise his novels. Ubik is set in 1992, in a world where psychic ability is normal and efforts are made to control its misuse. In a manic twist on conventional tales of feuding business empires, Dick describes a battle between the psychic and anti psychic forces during which the leader of the latter group is killed. Or his employees are killed. They each have a different idea of identity in which one group sees themselves as alive, but are given evidence the opposite may be true. A classic Dick exposition on ‘what is real’, this time in a comic world of talking doors that will only open on payment of a fee, and an ubiquitous product advertised everywhere, called Ubik. Gradually all certainty leaves the group of anti psychics, and even their past is corroded. Ubik can help. Ubik seems a commercial product containing god. There’s nothing like it. Could consumerism be a form of faith? asks Dick.

13 novels in the Library of America edition

Nineteen eighty four: George Orwell 1948

5 George Orwell

George Orwell casually excelled at many forms of writing. A great letter writer, a perceptive critic and a master of the English essay (edited by his wife Sonia in four volumes 1968); a superb social novelist (Burmese Days); a brilliant social commentator (Down and Out in Paris and London); a political commentator of genius (Animal Farm). And writer of this generation’s most important book Nineteen eighty four. It seems out of place to put this book on a list of SF books, because it has half come true, and no fiction about it. We read it, or should, to make sure the other half doesn’t come true. The book describes a society in crisis. There is danger from political opponents, and this justifies a state of emergency in which all members of the society work for the good of the Party, headed by Big Brother. There is a cold war, enemies of the state are terrorists, thought is controlled by Thought Police, and every waking moment is dominated by TV screens, which preach ceaselessly the party line. There are daily hate sessions directed at leaders of the enemy nations. Language has been subverted to prevent individual thought. It is a simple but constantly revised one called Newspeak. These all might have been radical new concepts in 1948. But now they make us, or should, uncomfortable. The hero of 1984 is Winston Smith, who works for the Ministry of Truth, where he falsifies history to omit references to people who have fallen from favour and been ‘eliminated’. Winston tries to revolt, is mercilessly crushed, and learns to love Big Brother at the same time realising he might not even really exist.  I think, and maybe I’m paranoid, that the book should be required reading for anyone who participates at all in their society, and read once a year, to see how we’re doing. Orwell once said, not that he was afraid that the society of 1984 would come about, but that people wouldn’t notice when it did. Nineteen eighty four more books by Orwell (NB copyright in USA for another three years)

Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury 1953

6 Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in reaction to a movement of his time. He lived through the McCarthy era, when books considered unsuitable and labelled seditious were burned. It was the height of the Cold War and anti Communist hysteria was widespread. Bradbury is predominantly a fantasy author, but this book arose from events that really touched him, and reading it today you can feel his concern that it might happen again. Book burning is a metaphor for suppression of debate, denial of basic rights, and totalitarian control. Bradbury is a great writer and it would be good if reading his book you could share his concern and not just enjoy a good story. Bradbury’s idea was that reading stimulated free thought and democratic participation in society.

The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula Le Guin 1969

7 Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is one of the great masters of prose in SF, so much so her books are sometimes categorised as something other, ‘speculative fiction’ or some other label by those who like labels. The Left Hand of Darkness is a ground breaking work in which Le Guin explores the nature of sexuality. A visitor from Earth comes to a planet called Winter, and discovers during their mission there that its people are androgynous, assuming sexual characteristics and feelings during a mating season each year. Le Guin takes the idea a radical step further when the earth visitor, Genly, learns that the sexual role of each individual is manifest randomly, that each person can become either male or female each season. Furthermore, he falls in love with a person he knew at first when in a male role when that person assumes randomly later on a female role. It’s a moving love story, an exploration of sexual politics, and great SF.

Slaughterhouse-five: Kurt Vonnegut 1969

8 Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut won’t stay in the SF box either. Slaughterhouse five tells its hero’s story, Billy Pilgrim’s, who seems to have wandered in from The Pilgrim’s Progress, in a thematic way, not dictated by temporal sequence as we normally experience life. We know some experiences are more important to us than others, and it is this level of importance to Billy that Vonnegut depicts. His idea is, time is not as important as the impact events have on us. Billy has an uncomfortable war experience, a traumatic one, and escapes from it whenever he can, even travelling to the planet Tralfamadore, but it keeps on returning. The book isn’t about the fire bombing of Dresden, but about its effect on those involved with it, and the effects of other events depicted, such as Billy’s absurd family, and the author Kilgore Trout, and the author Kurt Vonnegut.

Flowers for Algernon: Daniel Keyes 1959/1966

9 Daniel Keyes

Daniel Keyes wrote Flowers for Algernon as a short story in 1959, and later adapted it into a novel in 1966. It’s the story, told through his journal entries, of a mentally limited man who befriends a white laboratory mouse called Algernon, participates like the mouse in a surgical procedure its proponents think will enhance intelligence, discovers some uncomfortable truths about the life he’s been living, and then learns that the experiment is flawed and its effects are temporary. He leaves the neighbourhood where all this has taken place, and asks his teacher to put some flowers on the grave of Algernon, whose intelligence also has degenerated, and who has died. The story makes valid points about the state of mental underdevelopment, and about the relationship between intellect and emotion, and is besides a lament on our human limitations and eventual death.

Solaris: Stanislaw Lem 1961

10 Stanislaw Lem 1990

Stanislaw Lem looked at the problems of communication with alien life forms in a more realistic way than the horde of ray gun wielding, take me to your leader, monsters who have tried to conquer the earth of so many 50s books and films. Lem in Solaris imagines that an alien and intelligent life form might be not recognisable as such because too different from human form and ideas of intelligence. This seems a very likely premise. The planet wide sentient ocean on Solaris has been studied for many years, but still baffles human scientists. Not knowing what they are doing, the scientists bombard it with x rays without considering the effect this might have on the ocean. It responds by realising their memories, creating figures from their past associated with loss, regret and pain. Is this a form of communication? Beautifully realised as a film by Tarkovsky, though Lem didn’t like it. Kindle or paperback

The Metamorphosis: Franz Kafka 1915

11 Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka a SF writer? He writes about aliens (OK, alienated people). Modern science has discovered we share the planet with millions of aliens, microbes, monsters in the black of the sea depths, fearsome insects. Kafka explored what it would be like to be one, documenting the process of becoming one in The Metamorphosis. All the rejected of society know Gregor’s plight, Jews, Negroes, physically disabled, mentally disabled, in fact, any minority group at all. In Gregor’s case we are told of his growing awareness of what has happened to him, his attempts to adjust, but also the lack of sympathy his family feels, their concern with getting on with their lives. The main consequence of being transformed into a disgusting insect like a giant cockroach is that Gregor becomes merely a nuisance. No sympathy is shown to him at any time. Is this how humans will greet aliens?

Stories: JG Ballard 2009

12 JG Ballard

JG Ballard is known for his novels, such as The Drowned World, Crash and Empire of the Sun, but I think his stories will outlast these. Collections such as The Four Dimensional Nightmare, The Terminal Beach, and The Disaster Area, containing stories like “The Voices of Time”, “The Garden of Time” and “The Day of Forever”, reveal one of the most original writers of fiction in SF or any other genre. The Collected Stories of 2009 has 1200 pages and 98 stories.

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami 2002

13 Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is definitely outside the SF box, yet imaginary worlds are a constant part of his fiction. In Kafka On The Shore one main character is affected as a child by a visitation reminiscent of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (or perhaps by a flight of B-52s, you never know) and develops supra normal powers, such as being able to talk to cats, and cause fish to rain from the sky. The other main character keeps meeting people who may be avatars of himself or his parents. Time shifts, and illusions create realities, as in the work of Philip K Dick. Whether these are basic elements of the plot, or decorations like the unsolved murder mystery is another matter. Kafka is full of charm. Kindle, hardcover or paperback

Eye of the Queen: Phillip Mann 1982

14 Phillip Mann

Phillip Mann’s story of the Pe-Ellia is considered by many the best novel of alien life ever written. Like The Left Hand of Darkness it has its effect from the involvement of the narrator with one of the people of this distant world. Mann is an accomplished writer indeed, and the reader never doubts for a minute that first contact could be like this. This is a convincing portrait of a super species that yet, finally, has similarities with some humans.

Pavane: Keith Roberts 1968

pavane.jpgKeith Roberts’ alternative history Pavane (a very beautiful and melancholy Elizabethan dance measure) is considered the best of the alternate history sub genre. Beautifully told, it is a sequence of short stories that illuminate one another, set in a world of 1968 in which the Catholic Church has retained its dominance of world affairs since the 16th century. The Armada defeated the forces of Elizabeth I and conquered England for the Pope, Protestantism was suppressed, Holland defeated and unable to play her role as an explorer of the New World. There is no Industrial Revolution, and life is lived much as it was done in the Middle Ages. But things are changing. A fascinating book.

Options: Robert Sheckley 1975

16 Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley was a prolific and entertaining writer: many of his other books are startling, funny and as original as Options, which starts with an astronaut marooned in space and grappling with an unhelpful repair robot, but gets increasingly out of hand until Sheckley himself has to intervene to get the story back on track. Mindswap posits a technology that makes that process possible, then explores the problems encountered within the body of a Martian, occupied by a human with no knowledge or experience of Martian life. Generally Sheckley sees technology as far more advanced than humans can cope with and delights to point this out in absurd situations. Options other Sheckley books

Many of these books have been banned by various groups in several of the United States, usually groups belonging to school libraries. As many of the books encourage self determination and open discussion, that seems appropriate. Protecting the little ones has always been a cover for the totalitarian minded. At least it shows the books are effective in what they set out to do, and the bans are a kind of alternative rating.

17 can handle SF

There are other books. The ones I haven’t heard of, the ones I haven’t read, the ones I didn’t like, the ones I once liked, ones from genres I don’t like, trendy ones, great ones. But the top half of my list at least consists of the absolute best that SF has produced. If you haven’t read these books (really!) you can be sure when you do you are reading not just great SF but great literature.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


4 thoughts on “Giants of science fiction

  1. I wonder if you have read Earth Abides, by George Stewart? An alternative-future written 50 years ago that blends melancholy snapshots of the planet once (almost) all humans have vanished with the trials and tribulations of those few who do survive. Profoundly moving in a bleak and rational manner, its science fiction veering ever closer to fact.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I haven’t read it but reviews I’ve read make it sound as though I’d like it. Qualms about the future are on the increase (see my essay Eve of Destruction which summarises them) so dismissing books like Stewart’s as ‘dystopias’ is not enough. Not if you read the news.

  2. In selecting “classic” books “with innovative speculative concepts,” I wonder why one or another by Jules Verne didn’t make your list.
    Thanks again!

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