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10 Science Fiction Novels Everyone Should Read

The best science fiction novels

Science fiction is now a crowded genre and a popular field. The genre is characterised by speculative fiction and novels rich in ideas, especially about the future of human civilisation and the relationship between people and technology. But what are the best science fiction novels? Any list of top ten works of science fiction everyone should read is going to prove controversial, and we have no doubt that reader will disagree with our choices here. We’ve tried to give a sense of the range of the genre since its (arguable) starting-point back in the early nineteenth century, and to include as many big names as we can, but also to include some lesser-known cult classics which we think everyone who wants to explore science fiction should read.

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). Critic Bernard Bergonzi called The Time Machine a modern myth; V. S. Pritchett thought it the best of Wells’s scientific romances. It was published in 1895, though the novella had evolved over several years and a series of drafts, beginning with the very different story ‘The Chronic Argonauts’, published in 1888 when Wells was in his early twenties. It didn’t quite single-handedly invent the idea of a machine for travelling through time, though it was the first great novel to use such a device. The Time Traveller journeys far into the future to visit London in the year 802,701 – a world in which the human race has evolved into two distinct species, the lacklustre Eloi (who dwell above-ground in the tropical garden paradise, watched over by the statue of a giant White Sphinx) and the brutish, apelike Morlocks who dwell in underground caves. Recommended edition: The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818). Often called the first true science fiction novel (though there are others that arguably qualify for the mantle), Shelley’s book was conceived and written while she was still a teenager. It remains a canonical text not just in science fiction but in Gothic horror and Romantic literature. Its plot is too familiar to repeat here, but its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, points up a key theme in much science fiction: the notion of playing God (Prometheus was the Greek titan who dared to steal fire from the gods and give it to man). Recommended edition: Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism (Norton Critical Editions)

Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Verne was one of the pioneers of science fiction in the nineteenth century, and this was one of his first major successes as a novelist. It deals, of course, with an intrepid voyage right into the earth’s core; on the way the crew of brave travellers encounter giant lakes and prehistorical animals, and are confronted with the terrifying experience of finding themselves deep in the earth’s core and surrounded by total darkness when their final light goes out. Recommended edition: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Oxford World’s Classics)

Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1952). Both Kingsley Amis and John Sutherland have called The Space Merchants the best science fiction novel; we’d certainly count it among the best. Pohl was a prolific writer of pulp fiction, and he brought his talent for page-turning adventure to this collaborative novel, in which the entire universe has become consumerist and advertising is the most powerful political force. Recommended edition: The Space Merchants (S.F. MASTERWORKS)

Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man (1956). Although Matheson’s other great novel I Am Legend (which fuses the vampire horror novel with science fiction) is usually named as his best book, we’d like to opt for The Shrinking Man, Matheson’s innovative book of 1950s paranoia in which the protagonist finds himself shrinking at the rate of an inch a week after he is exposed to dangerous radiation. Scott Carey ends up living in the cellar of his own house, and potential prey for all the creepy-crawlies that dwell down there (not to mention the house cat). Matheson came up with scenes for the novel by going and sitting down in his own cellar, and casting his eye around for interesting everyday objects which, to a tiny person, would present real dangers or would come in handy in his fight for survival. The idea for the novel itself was supposedly inspired by a comedy film, but Matheson’s novel is a heartbreaking tragedy about one man’s world falling away from him as well as one of the most nail-biting works of twentieth-century SF. Arachnophobes beware though: it also contains perhaps the most nightmare-inducing description of a giant spider (well, giant from the shrinking man’s perspective) ever committed to paper. Recommended edition: The Shrinking Man (S.F. MASTERWORKS)

J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (1962). One of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written, for our money, and one of Ballard’s earliest novels. Ballard was a fascinating author whose work fuses the spirit of classic science fiction with the experimental edge of writers like William Burroughs. We reckon there’s a bit of Joseph Conrad in this novel, too, which opens in some future period when the polar ice-caps have melted and the cities of Europe have become large tropical lagoons which suggest Heart of Darkness or the Amazon rainforest more than they do present-day London. Recommended edition: By J.G. Ballard The Drowned World (S.F. Masterworks) (New edition) [Paperback]

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (1973). Clarke was a hugely important writer of science fiction, and as well as writing this classic novel, he also wrote the short story on which the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was based (Clarke would also write the novelisation of the film). As with many classic science fiction novels, Rendezvous with Rama poses an intriguing ‘what if’ question: what if a spaceship entered the solar system? How would Earth react, assuming we had the power and ability to go out and investigate it? It is just such a ‘rendezvous’ that this compelling novel explores. Recommended edition: Rendezvous With Rama (S.F. Masterworks S.)

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951). No list (or attempted list) of the best SF novels would be complete without something from Isaac Asimov, and Foundation, the first novel Asimov wrote (while still in his early twenties) in an eventual seven-part series, is probably the best place to start. (Asimov wrote or edited hundreds of books, so it isn’t easy to find a good starting-place!) The series is founded on the notion that, given a big enough cohort of people and enough time, one can accurately predict the future on a galactic scale, something which the series’ mathematician character, Hari Seldon, calls ‘psychohistory’. The novel, and the series as a whole, also features a cast of other curious characters including the Mule, a mysterious empire-builder whose presence Seldon’s psychohistorical plan failed to foresee. Think of the Foundation series (the original three novels in the series are the best) as science fiction’s answer to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Recommended edition: Foundation

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). This is another classic novel that would later become even more famous as a classic science fiction film – in this case, the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner (1982). This novel is set in a world that has been ravaged by nuclear apocalypse, and follows a bounty hunter who is given the task of tracking down and ‘retiring’ six escaped androids. Exploring the relationship between man and machine and, more crucially, what defines human empathy, this is one of about half a dozen Philip K. Dick novels that could have made this list. Recommended edition: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (Gollancz)

John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Set in 2010, Stand on Zanzibar has to be one of the most prescient science-fiction novels ever written. In the book, Brunner prophesied that the population of Earth would have exceeded 7 billion by 2010 (it actually happened in October 2011), that Europe would form a sort of collective union (i.e. the EU), and that China would rise to become a competitive world power. Stand on Zanzibar also features a character named President Obomi, and foresaw electronic music, that the Honda company would start making automobiles, Viagra, and same-sex marriage. Overpopulation, though, is its core theme, and the novel is a curious mixture of world-building (delivered in numerous experimental ways reminiscent of John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer) and good old-fashioned pulp-fiction storytelling. The novel has been reprinted in the SF Masterworks series. Recommended edition: [(Stand on Zanzibar)] [ By (author) John Brunner ] [September, 2014]

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 2, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I’d certainly include George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, for its influence and epic qualities.

  2. This is a magnificent list! I don’t even call myself a science fiction reader, and yet I love science fiction. The first book in fact I fell in love with was the time machine by HG Wells. It’ sparked my imagination and I believe began my love of writing.
    Now I must go out and read the space merchant. It sounds very scary. It sounds like it’s not science-fiction but our times now.

    • Thank you! Yes The Space Merchants is oddly prophetic, as is much SF – even if that’s not primarily our reason for reading it, and it reflects its own times as much as it foreshadows the future. You’ll have to let us know what you think of the novel :)

  3. Thanks, I now have a list of four novels I want to read. I did try to write one speculative story a few years back and perhaps these will make me resurrect it.

    • That would be great – I think there’s nothing like reading some new titles/names in a genre to rekindle one’s enthusiasm for writing in it :) you’ll have to let us know what you think of the four when you’ve read them!

    • This was one of the toughest things about compiling a top 10 list for such a broad genre. Which Bradbury would you include? It’d be nice to use the comments as an opportunity to add some further suggestions – 10 just isn’t enough!

      • Actually, it would only be F451 because Bradbury in an interview said his other books were fantasy–which I thought interesting.

        • I remember reading somewhere he made that claim. It’s similar to another great 20th-century writer who crossed between SF and fantasy, Leigh Brackett (with whom Bradbury collaborated). Are her planetary romances SF or fantasy? Clearly SF-inflected, but often published as fantasy :)

      • Dandelion Wine or Illustrated Man

        • Can I also make a plea for more recent SF highlights. One of the best I’ve read is David Brin’s Existence. He also co-authored, with Gregory Benford, the highly entertaining Heart of the Comet. (1986) Not as recent is Doris Lessing’s dystopian The Memoirs of a Survivor. (1974) – it is such a slow burner; the way she writes builds up the narrative very gradually, I wondered if it was going to be worthwhile; it was; it is – read it if you haven’t already!

  4. Great list. Looks like I got some reading to do. Def been meaning to read a few of these already. Glad to see Foundations included, that was a great series.

  5. Dune? John Wyndham? Robert Heinlein? A E Van Vogt?

  6. I’m a real fan of this site, but I confess to being deeply disappointed with this list. There isn’t a single book written by a woman and they are all old… That, of course, doesn’t mean they are now no longer relevant, but given the vibrancy and depth of current talent, I think it’s a shame you did not think to include some of the modern greats.

    • Sorry you’re disappointed – we knew this list would prove controversial (and trying to limit ourselves to just 10 titles was brave if not foolhardy!). We wanted to give a sense of the evolution of the genre from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (surely she qualifies as a woman?) to the present, but make the comments list a space for people to fill in the gaps in our coverage. Contemporary SF is one such gap: what recent classics would you add?

      • One way of limiting the impossible task to just 10 titles would be to bracket the novels by dates – such as pre-1900/ 1900-1950/1950-2000 et.

        • Good plan – we may end up expanding this list to 20 titles anyway! Though keep the suggestions coming. I, too, would like to know where to start with van Vogt (whose work I don’t know at all well).

      • Right – I needed to go away and think about this one, because obviously I would want ALL the books to be readable and yet add something different to the body of work. It’s been a struggle to compress these down to 10 books, and I’m sure there will be plenty of folks who would want to add others – but all these have been published within the last 10 years and are classic science fiction reads. In no particular order – Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Cory; Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold; Embassytown by China Miéville; Among Others by Jo Walton; The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan; The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin; Dark Eden by Chis Beckett; Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan; After Atlas by Emma Newman; Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

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