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 classic 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 readers 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 classic science fiction should read.
1. 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)
2. 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)
3. 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)
4. 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 ever written; 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)
5. 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)
6. 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]
7. 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.)
8. 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
9. 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)
10. 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’ novels) 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]