25 essential SF novels

Earlier this year, AbeBooks.com published a list of 50 Essential Science Fiction Books. They have a good selection on their list and it inspired SF author Ian Sales, along with Jared Shurin and James Smythe, to compile their own lists – all of which were split into two parts (Ian Sales: One Two; Jared Shurin: One Two; James Smythe: One Two) and then Ian posted an analysis of the three lists.

I heard about this via The Antihippy whose list of 27 Essential SF Books started me thinking about what I put into such a list.

Compiling the list proved to be surprisingly easy although I did impose a few restrictions on myself to prevent things from getting out of hand. Firstly, I only allowed myself one book per author, this to keep me from compiling a list of everything by $AUTHOR or all books in $SERIES. Secondly, I limited myself to novels, so short story collections are excluded. And finally, I have tried to remain strictly withing the SF genre. There are some superb genre novels out there but, unless I can honestly say that I think of the novel as science fiction (an entirely subjective judgement, I know), it isn’t going to make it onto this list.

I should also add a disclaimer to note that this is a list of books that I wold recommend based on what I have read and, as such, reflects my own preferences, prejudices and blind spots. The list is not definitive and plenty of other opinions are available.

So, with those caveats out of the way here is the list (in alphabetical order):

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Before The Hunger Games, there was Battle Royale. This is dystopian SF at it’s most horrific, in which a class of teenagers are forced to fight – against each other – for their survival. The novel is relentless, powerful and one that leaves you picking at its themes long after you have turned the final page.

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

Time travel, historical fiction and an exploration of how far we will go to protect our beliefs. What more could you want?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

George Orwell (who is also in this list) feared an authoritarian state that would beat us all into submission. But I can’t help feel that it was Aldous Huxley who more accurately foresaw the modern world. To steal a quote from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

John Wyndam’s novels in general, and The Day of the Triffids in particular, have been accused of being “cosy catastrophes” in which the world ends apart from a handful of (primarily) middle-class survivors who jolly well start to sort things out. It’s not an entirely unfair criticism but I do feel that it is one that misses the point somewhat. The real core of the book is a discussion on how British society might reorganise itself if the slate were to be wiped clean in – for example – a nuclear war.

Science fiction, as has been often observed, is less about the future than it is about talking about how we got to where we are now and, in this, Wyndam excels.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

Another apocalypse but this one is entirely ecological. In The Death of Grass, John Christopher considers what would happen if a virus started killing off the grass. All grasses, including wheat and rice. The results are not pretty – many of our staple foods are gone and most of livestock can no longer be sustained.

The Death of Grass presents a frighteningly plausible end of the world scenario and then questions just how long we would manage to cling to civilisation if it came about.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

There was a time when steampunk was a new and interesting sub-genre, rather than the cod-Victoriana we are so often presented with nowadays. The high point of this was The Difference Engine (which also allows me to sneak two excellent authors into this list for the price of one).

The novel is a cracking piece of alternate history that speculates about what sort of Victorian information society would have emerged if Charles Babbage had managed to build his Difference Engine.

Dune by Frank Herbert

For a long time, this was my favourite SF novel of all time. Dune represents world-building at its finest and is probably one of the first truly immersive SF novels.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns) is not, as is often asserted, a book about censorship. It is, like Brave New World, a novel that looks towards a future in which censorship is no longer needed. Books aren’t burned because governments fear their contents, but because the clueless masses don’t want to feel stupid when compare to a literate elite.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is, for want of a better word, a tricksy novelist. His novels often have the feel of elaborately constructed puzzles that require close attention for you to fully appreciate them. All of this comes together superbly in this collection of three interrelated stories.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

You can’t really claim to have a list of essential SF if Isaac Asimov doesn’t make an appearance. I have to admit, though, that the robots novels I have read feel a bit dated now. His Foundation trilogy, however, is a galaxy-spanning space-opera that explores how the social sciences would work if they were actually sciences. In Foundation and Empire, the second novel in the trilogy, we are presented with the very real limitations of these.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly

Arguably the first modern science fiction novel – and certainly one of the first, Frankenstein is a novel that, like Fahrenheit 451, is quoted more than it is read. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

As with The Death of Grass, the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is frighteningly plausible. Ian Sales says it better than I could:

The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…

High Rise by JG Ballard

While most apocalyptic fiction tends to focus on global social collapse, High Rise condenses all of this into a single tower block. As with other novels of this type, Ballard’s book explores the extent to which our civilisation is dependent on the technologies upon which we rely, and questions how quickly we would descend into barbarism if these technologies failed.

By containing the events in a single location, Ballard gives the story a much greater impact and also prompts us to consider the extent to which the rest of us are able to ignore the events happening (figuratively) right next door.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Literate, witty, intelligent, thought-provoking and laugh-out-loud funny. Douglas Adams’ tale of a man’s search for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything (and a decent cup of tea) is not so much a novel as a cultural phenomenon. There is even an annual day dedicated to the life and work of the author – there’s not many people in SF about which you can say that.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

This is probably an obvious choice but it is often the case that obvious choices have good reason to be obvious.

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

Iain M Banks has written many Culture novels and they all stand out from the pack for the fact that Banks has clearly put some thought into the economic and social ramifications of a galaxy-spanning civilisation. This is most apparent in The Player of Games, which works on multiple levels from a discussion of the comparative strength of an open society compared to an authoritarian one, to a blisteringly good story.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

I do like a but of space opera but have to admit that much of it is so implausible that it is often no more than fantasy with spaceships. Not that this is a bad thing, in itself, but does make Alastair Reynolds’ hard-SF space opera feel like a breath of fresh air in an often moribund genre. There are no faster than light spaceships in this universe and the ramifications of near light speed travel are part of the narrative. Revelation Space is both plausible and epic – a rare feat indeed.

Ronin by Frank Miller

Back in the 1980s, Frank Miller was one of the people leading the way with intelligent and inspired graphical storytelling. Ronin, which is strongly influenced by both Japanese and European comic styles, is probably his best work. Inspired by the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series, Ronin takes the idea of a masterless samurai and transports it into a dystopian New York to come up with a story that is both powerful and original.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I was tempted to type: “Free will is an illusion and we all die in the end. So it goes.” But I didn’t, because such a glib one-liner undersells Slaughterhouse Five to the point of being actively misleading. The problem is, I don’t think there’s any way I can summarise this novel without underselling it to the point of being misleading.

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M Kornbluth

This one felt like a bit of a cheat when I started compiling this list as I slightly less than two thirds through this book at the time. That said, Pohl and Kornbluth’s wonderfully biting satire of hyper-consumerism is so effective and so relevant – possibly even more so today than it was in 1952 – that I couldn’t see it letting me down in the final stretch and, I’m rather rather glad to be able to say that it didn’t.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

It’s arguable whether Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein’s strongest novel, but it’s certainly not the weakest. It is, however, the Heinlein novel that has enjoyed the greatest cultural impact. It’s also a very ambitious novel which inverts the common trope of placing an Earthman on an alien world in order to challenge some of the social conventions to which we have become accustomed.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

When people talk of Alan Moore, Watchmen is generally the first title to spring to mind. While Watchmen probably represents a pinnacle of graphical storytelling, I think that V for Vendetta represents the moment when comics started to be taken seriously. Strongly influenced by the political climate of 1980s Britain, V for Vendetta is the result of Alan Moore consciously thinking about where the extreme poles of politics really were.

Moore never loses sight of the need to tell a good story, however, and V for Vendetta is a powerful, tale for which the dense narrative has much to say. Not only is this a book worth reading, it’s a book worth reading on a regular basis.

V for Vendetta is also the only one of Alan Moore’s works that was ever made into a halfway decent film.

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

HG Wells is another author from which I could easily select any of a number of novels but, ultimately, this tale of Martians stomping all over Surrey is irrresistable. There is, of course, much more going on here than just an alien invasion story, not least of which was Wells’ decision to put the then dominant global power on the receiving end of an aggressively imperialist invasion.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Before 1984, before Brave New World, there was We – possibly the original dystopian novel. Written in 1921 and set in the savagely egalitarian panopticon of the One State, the novel was written in response to both the Russian revolution and the industrial efficiency ideas that were popular at the time. George Orwell explicitly cited We as a model for 1984 but the influence of Zamyatin’s novel can be seen much more widely.

Not surprisingly, it was also the first novel that the Soviets saw fit to ban.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As long as there are people getting things badly wrong on large scales, writers of dystopian fiction will have plenty of fodder. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, for example looks at a future in which global warming has been allowed to run unchecked until the fuel runs out. Biotechnology has become the dominant industry and food production is controlled by an oligopoly of global corporations. The Windup Girl is a compelling and though-provoking novel that packs a lot into a very small space. It’s well worth reading, as are Bacigalupi’s many short stories.

Some observations

Looking back over this list, a couple of thoughts have struck me.

The first one is that, while I have always thought of myself as being a fan of space opera, it is the dystopian fiction that have proved to have achieved the most lasting impact.

Also, I really should read some more women SF writers. I am aware that there are some very good ones out there, some of whom I have encountered in short stories. I am now thinking that there are a number of novels that I need to add to my reading list.

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