Although there were some earlier glimmers, Science Fiction (SF) began with the development of modern science in the industrial and scientific revolutions of the early 1800s. Many scholars credit Marty Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818 to be the first true SF novel.
Thus, SF developed in parallel with scientific theories of the era, in celebration of human reason, and in opposition to more romantic, irrational stories. Of course, we’ve come a long way since then. English Professor Emeritus and SF author James Gunn said, “Science fiction is the literature of change.” SF enables us to extrapolate any aspects of our culture and to imagine and examine the human condition, in a rational way.
There are two major annual SF awards, the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. Beginning in 1953, the Hugo Awards are given out for the best SF or fantasy works (of various lengths) of the previous year, as decided by the current members of the World Science Fiction Convention. Anyone can join the Convention and vote on the Hugos, so this is a very democratic award.
Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given out for the best SF works (of various lengths) of the calendar year, as decided by the members of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). SFWA requires authors to meet certain publication criteria for admission, so the Nebulas are awarded by fellow SF authors. Most of the SF novels on the list below have won one or both of these prestigious awards.
In addition, most of the novels below have had a significant impact on our culture and how we understand what it means to be human.
Brave New World is an iconic SF novel, which some consider to be one of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century. The story begins with a chilling tour of the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre, where five different castes of children are created in a factory setting.
Brave New World holds up surprisingly well with its reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.
The primary protagonist Bernard Marx is a psychologist with an inferiority complex, unhappy with his life in the rigid highly-structured society. This novel is considered one of the first dystopian novels, so, not surprisingly, things do not go well for Bernard, or the protagonist introduced later, John.
Reading the novel through the lens of the twenty-first century, Huxley’s vision in which the populace enjoys drugs/entertainment, and can be controlled by inflicting pleasure and/or distractions, seems prescient.
1984 has won numerous awards and appeared on various best literature lists.
Many of the dystopian ideas of George Orwell’s novel 1984 have become entrenched in our society, political control of information, surveillance, propaganda, and psychological manipulation. Elements such as ‘Big Brother Is Watching You,’ ‘Who controls the past controls the future,’ and ‘Orwellian’ are now in common parlance.
In the novel set in 1984, minor Oceania bureaucrat Winston Smith defies a ban on individuality by expressing his thoughts in a diary and pursuing a romantic relationship with Julia. The totalitarian government finds out and forces the nonconformists to reform, ultimately controlling what they think.
Orwell meant his story to be a cautionary tale of the dangers of government overreach, the cult of personality, and totalitarianism. I’m not sure we’ve learned our lesson.
Fahrenheit 451 is another award-winner and another dystopia. The title is derived from the burning temperature of paper, 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Book burning has become emblematic of trying to suppress or destroy knowledge.
In the novel, the job of a fireman is to start fires and burn books. Books were banned because special-interest groups were offended by books they disagreed with. Fireman Guy Montag experiences a series of stressful events, and himself becomes dissatisfied with the status quo.
He concocts a scheme to wean people from television and bring books back, but things go awry as he loses his wife, his house is burnt down, and a mechanical dog tries to kill him. Ultimately, civilization is destroyed, and Montag and his surviving book-loving friends hope to rebuild it with knowledge as the foundation.
Bradbury has written many other important and critically-acclaimed novels. One of my favorites is the poetic SF novel The Martian Chronicles (1950).
Heinlein’s work is considered groundbreaking because he utilized indirect exposition, mentioning specific details so readers can infer things about a novel’s world, rather than having the author explain them. He also has some famous rules of writing (write, finish what you start, refrain from rewriting, submit, keep submitting until it sells.)
It’s difficult to pick just one Heinlein novel for a best-of list, but I’m going to go with Starship Troopers. It’s a coming-of-age story of interstellar soldier Roger Young during humanity’s war with extraterrestrial bugs, told in a nonlinear chronology. This novel is classic military SF at its best; Heinlein, himself a Naval officer, knew what he was writing about.
Several of his other SF novels won multiple awards including, Double Star (1956), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965). Some of my favorites also include his Lazarus Long novels, particularly The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985).
Philip K. Dick has had an unusual number of his SF stories adapted for movies/TV.
The Man in the High Castle is an alternative history novel in which the U.S. lost World War II and was divided up by the victorious Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. There are several point-of-view characters with their own subplots, but here I will focus on the main one, Tagomi.
In Japanese-controlled San Francisco, Mr. Tagomi works for a trade company and faces moral dilemmas throughout the events of the book, often consulting the i-Ching when making decisions. He also seems to go to parallel Earths. Thus the novel explores the concepts of multiple worlds, destiny, and identity.
Dick’s 1969 SF novel Ubik also won a number of awards. Another outstanding Dick SF novel is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), dramatized by the Blade Runner movies.
From the beginning, Dune was a winner with readers, winning numerous SF awards. Dune is set in the distant year 10,191 when humans have colonized the universe, implementing a feudal society. Nobleman Paul Atreides’ family is the steward of the desert planet Arrakis.
The planet’s claim to fame is it is the only source of the coveted mélange, the spice, a drug that enhances mental abilities and extends life. The novel tells the story of the complex, multi-layered struggle for control of Arrakis. Herbert wrote five well-received sequels: Dune Messiah (1969), Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1983), and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985). Others (approved by the Herbert estate) have continued the series.
There have been many film, TV, and computer game incarnations of the Dune universe. Dune is one of the best-selling SF novels of all time.
While it was inspired by several Clarke stories, Clarke initially developed this novel in collaboration with movie director Stanley Kubrick. With millions of copies of the novel and its sequels sold worldwide, Clarke’s space odysseys have become iconic. In the beginning of the novel, a giant crystal monolith appears on Earth and experiments on primitive primates.
Later, David Bowman and another astronaut are on a purported mission to Saturn with their A.I. computer Hal. Hal begins malfunctioning, and an astronaut dies, leaving David alone after he disconnects Hal. David learns the real mission is to explore Japetus, a moon of Saturn. While doing so, he discovers another monolith and travels through it as a kind of portal. David is transformed into a noncorporeal immortal and ends up saving Earth from a nuclear war. 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first work to really bring space travel to life.
Honorable mention goes to Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise (1979), Childhood’s End (1953), and Rendezvous with Rama (1973). Science fiction fans can’t go wrong in reading Clarke.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a satirical nonlinear anti-war novel following the life of unreliable narrator Billy Pilgrim. It’s SF because Billy is ‘unstuck’ and travels randomly in time. In a brief linear reconstruction: Billy is born in New York and is drafted into the army during World War II, he’s soon captured and spends most of the war as a POW, experiencing horrors.
After the war, he gets married has kids, and is kidnapped by extraterrestrials, who teach him the secrets of time. Scholars consider Billy to be an unreliable narrator, psychologically scarred by his war experiences. Thus, Vonnegut, himself a WWII veteran and pacifist, explored modern topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder before they were recognized.
Vonnegut published several other novels, experiments in the form of the novel itself, often dealing with mental health issues.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a very talented American novelist whose works have had significant impacts on our culture. In terms of SF, award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness is part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, which encompasses several novels, including the 1974 award-winner The Dispossessed.
The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of Genly Ai, an envoy of the confederation of planets, who is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its nations to join the federation. However, Genly is hindered by the ambisexual (no fixed gender) natives—who he can’t seem to understand–and their consequent influence on the culture.
Watching Genly navigate such issues is fascinating and makes one think about our culture. Le Guin’s exploration of gender and sex and their influences on society was groundbreaking and one of the first books of feminist SF.
Le Guin is credited with raising the standard of SF literature and won many, many awards.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific authors of all time, writing or editing on the order of 500 books and hundreds of stories, including the Foundation series and I, Robot. Asimov is perhaps best known for his Three Laws of Robotics.
However, his most critically-acclaimed novel was The Gods Themselves, consisting of three parts. In part one, in the early 22nd-century Earth radiochemist Frederick Hallam discovers people from a parallel universe have interfered with ours and develop a way to pump energy between the universes. Later, physicist Peter Lamont communicates with the parallel universe, warning them that their actions are harming the universes.
In part two, in the parallel universe, alien Dua, one of the ‘Gods’ of the title, tries to pass on Lamont’s message. In part three back in our universe, on the Moon, physicist Denison tries to solve the problems caused by the people in the parallel world and succeeds by utilizing a third parallel world.
Asimov had a Ph.D. in biochemistry and was a very important SF author, particularly in the 1940s-1950s; in later life, The Good Doctor turned primarily to nonfiction.
Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is a multiple-award-winning military SF novel—much different in tone from Starship Troopers. In The Forever War, brilliant physics student William Mandella is drafted into an elite military force and shipped off to an interstellar war against the Taurans.
William falls in love with fellow soldier, Marygay Potter, and the soldiers are victorious, but due to time dilation, Earth is unrecognizable when they get home. William and Marygay re-enlist, get separate assignments, but manage to reunite after the war—which is revealed to have started due to a misunderstanding. The Forever War was widely hailed for addressing soldiers’ alienation after war and showing how pointless war can be.
Haldeman returned to this world several times in his Forever War series. Several of his other novels have also won numerous awards. A couple of my favorites are The Accidental Time Machine (2007), and Camouflage (2004).
Fredrick Pohl’s multiple-award-winning novel Gateway is the first in his Heechee saga. The Gateway of the title is a hollowed-out asteroid, containing hundreds of spaceships, created by the long-vanished ‘Heechee’ alien race. Unfortunately, humans haven’t quite figured out how to operate the ships, so the volunteer astronauts have no idea where they’ll end up or how long it will take to get there.
The protagonist of the story is likable Robinette “Rob” Broadhead; we’re told of his adventures in these mysterious ships via a nonlinear chronology along with his therapy sessions—necessary because of what he experienced on the trips. With Pohl’s masterful characterization, this is a very entertaining novel.
Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) also won various awards.
Also, a multiple-award winner, Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake investigates biotechnology and genetic manipulation on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
McIntyre’s protagonist is Snake, a traveling healer who uses her genetically-altered snakes to produce medicine, alleviate suffering, and ease death. Her unique (possibly alien) dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the ignorant family of a patient, and Snake must figure out what do without it.
The remainder of the book describes Snake’s adventures on her way home, including dealing with a snake-addicted man, discovering the origin of the dreamsnakes, and saving her life. The novel was praised for its feminine heroine, compassion, and world-building. McIntyre’s 1997 The Moon and the Sun is also recommended.
Octavia E. Butler’s nonlinear stand-alone novel Kindred is an important exploration of gender, race, slavery, and power dynamics via an SF time-travel story. Butler’s protagonist is a young African-American writer, Dana Franklin, who travels between 1976 Los Angeles and a slave-filled pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland.
Dana time-travels because she’s pulled into the past by a Caucasian ancestor, Rufus Weylin, and ends up saving his life multiple times while suffering horrific consequences of being a black woman in the antebellum south. Ultimately, Dana kills Rufus in self-defense, and returns home to 1976, albeit injured.
Butler wrote numerous highly-acclaimed novels, including Parable of the Sower (1993), which also won many awards.
Neuromancer by William Gibson is the novel that kick-started the subgenre known as cyberpunk. It has had significant impacts on our culture, including popularizing terms such as cyberspace, the matrix, and the proliferation of various literary ‘punks’ such as steampunk, dieselpunk, biopunk. Considering the low technological level in 1984, Gibson’s achievement is all the more impressive.
In Neuromancer, Henry Dorsett Case’s hacking ability is ruined by a disgruntled former employer. When a mysterious new employer offers to fix him in return for an illegal job, Case jumps at the chance. Case joins a cohort of criminals who are ultimately supposed to merge two AI’s, Wintermute and Neuromancer. He uses his considerable hacking skills and finally prevails, overcoming several obstacles, including the AI law enforcement agency.
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is a thought-provoking military SF novel, featuring child soldiers. It raises many important questions related to warfare, violent video games, and childhood.
In Ender’s Game, humanity is at war with an alien race, the Formics, aka the insectoid Buggers. The protagonist Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is conscripted at six-years-old, taken to Command School, and trained to be a commander in the war. While the training has its brutal aspects, Ender and his fellow child recruits think everything is a game, including his final exam battle, in which he commits genocide.
Of course, it turns out it was not a game, and Ender has won the war for humanity. Card does an absolutely amazing job characterizing the child Ender, and the reader empathizes with him throughout the novel, and thus his act of genocide is all the more jarring. Card revisits the world several times in his Ender’s Game series.
As time has passed, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has become more chilling and prescient. It’s set in the near future after the secular U.S. government has been overthrown for a totalitarian patriarchal theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.
The protagonist is known only as Offred, literally ‘of Fred,’ her male master. Handmaids are necessary for procreation because many women are infertile due to environmental radiation and pollution. Offred’s tale is bleak and disturbing as she describes her highly-constrained shopping excursions, mating ‘Ceremony,’ and the like, contrasted with her flashbacks of normal life before the revolution. In the end, she gets mixed up in the resistance and whisked off to parts unknown in a van.
Her final fate, like her true name, is unknown. Atwood concludes the novel with a strangely-disrespectful epilogue, set in 2195 when Gilead has been overthrown, in which a professor discusses and jokes about Offred’s story in the context of a factual historical record.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars is a surprisingly realistic account of the colonization of Mars. It’s the first book in his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996)).
Robinson is known for his attention to detail, including the details of the inner lives of his characters. In Red Mars in 2026, humanity begins colonizing Mars with the spaceship Ares and a crew of a hundred scientists, mostly Americans and Russians. There are several main characters, a couple of prominent ones are Sax Russell, a physicist, leading the Greens, who wants to terraform Mars ASAP, and Ann Clayborne, a geologist, leading the Reds, who wants to preserve the planet.
The central conflict of the novel, then, is the conflicting desires of these two factions, Greens and Reds. Eventually, the Greens with support from Earth, are victorious, and major terraforming efforts begin. Unfortunately for the Greens, guerilla warfare tactics consisting of ‘accidents’ and sabotage, set the stage for the conflict to come, and full-blown war breaks out. Robinson has written a number of recommended SF novels.
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress is considered a pillar of feminist SF and is also an admirable example of an SF novel featuring biology. This novel is acclaimed for its predictions of emerging technologies and of genetic engineering, bioethics, and competing social orders.
Kress is a master of characterization, world-building, and plotting. The central premise in the novel is the creation of the Sleepless, people who don’t sleep, via genetic engineering, and the consequences thereof.
As the story progresses, the massive advantages of the Sleepless result in a restructuring of human society and increasing stresses. The main story question is: what do the haves owe the have-nots in a world where technology is making workers obsolete?
Kress continues her marvelous Sleepless series with Beggars and Choosers (1994) and Beggars Ride (1996).
Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer explores the roles of education, culture, technology, and relationships in human development. The title is derived from the idea that humans will create a new archaeological period, the high-tech Diamond Age, succeeding the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. In this future, humans are divided into various tribes, including the Victorians, the Han, and the Nippon.
In the novel, the main character, Nell, a second-class citizen because she’s not in a tribe, receives a stolen copy of an interactive Victorian Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer as a girl, and it encourages her to be successful and interesting and to subvert the status quo. The engineer of the primer, John Percival Hackworth, gets in trouble and among other things, is forced to mass-produce the Primer for the Han. Eventually, young women raised on the Han’s illegal primer form the Mouse Army, led by Nell, and foment revolution to overthrow the tribes, leading to an era of greater freedom.
Stephenson’s other SF novels have been nominated for or won, numerous awards. A personal favorite is The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (2017) with Nicole Galland.
Connie Willis’ work is wonderful because of her imagination, humor, and focus on characters.
Willis is the most-awarded SF author in history. Her novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in the same time-travel world as her award-winning Doomsday Book (1992), and Blackout/All Clear 2010). I can attest to the fact that To Say Nothing of the Dog was inspired by Jerome K. Jerome’s humorous 1889 novel Three Men in a boat: (to say nothing of the dog).
In Willis’ delightful novel, time-traveling historians in 2057 Oxford University are focused on rebuilding the Coventry Cathedral, but one of them illegally brings a cat to the present (when they are extinct) from the Victorian era. The protagonist, Ned Henry, attempts to fix the resulting temporal disruption, but he has time-traveled too much, gets a case of ‘time lag’ and, confused, is trapped in 1888, where he accidentally disrupts the timeline even more.
Various humorous mishaps ensue, but with the help of Verity Kindle, a lovely fellow time-traveler, things are eventually put right, and the timeline is saved. Huzzah! SF fans can’t go wrong with any of Willis’ books.
Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a detective story set in an alternative history. Chabon creates a fascinating world with a Jewish settlement in Alaska, in which four million Jews were saved from the Nazi Holocaust, but Israel is destroyed three-months after founding.
The protagonist is alcoholic homicide detective Meyer Landsman with the Sitka police department. The story begins when Landsman catches a murder in the hotel where he lives and calls in his partner, a half-Tlingit, half-Jewish Berko Shemets. The two men investigate and discover the deceased, Mendel Shpilman, was the son of a powerful crime boss, as well as a potential Jewish messiah, and was involved with Meyer’s deceased sister.
The story takes many twists and turns, including an international conspiracy to bomb the Dome of the Rock and build a new Temple in Jerusalem. In the end, Meyer solves the murder, but the detectives appear to bow to pressure from the religious zealots.
The Three Body Problem is one of the few Chinese SF novels to have achieved success in the English-speaking world, and it’s not an easy book to digest. The novel’s chronology is not linear and involves multiple characters, so it’s not simple to summarize.
A main plotline is: Wenjie Ye witnesses the horrors of the Chines Culture Revolution, including the murder of her father, and becomes disillusioned by the state of humanity. Thus, Wenjie and others with similar sentiments, turn to some extraterrestrials, the Trisolarans, to take over planet Earth and fix us. When other humans discover this, they are understandably not happy. But since the Trisolarans already have a foothold on Earth, it’s unclear what they can do about it.
In Cixin Liu’s world, the universe is vast, filled with non-yielding physics, and other species trying to take what we’ve got. He continues the story in The Dark Forest (2015 English translation), and Death’s End(2016 English translation), on an even grander scale. Cixin Liu’s work is extremely popular in China.
The Windup Girl is considered by many to be among the best of literary SF. The novel is set in the 23rd century after global warming has decimated Earth, and genetically modified organisms have destroyed the ecosystem. Only Thailand has genetically viable seeds and a viable civilization, though its capital is below sea level, protected by pumps and levees.
There are several main characters, ecological police ‘white-shirts’ Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Jaidee’s protege, greedy Anderson Lake intent on corporate espionage, Hock Seng Anderson’s assistant and a Chinese refuge, and Emiko a ‘windup girl’ a Japanese human-robot hybrid and prostitute. In brief: an accidental plague at Anderson’s factory sets off a chain of events including a white shirt uprising, Emiko kills several people, Kanya rises to the top of the white shirt troops and floods the city to stop the plague. In the end, Anderson contracts the plague while artificial Emiko is left standing, one of the only survivors.
It clear Bacigalupi has a real facility for world-building. The novel has become a kind of focal point for those opposed to genetically modified organisms, although I do not believe that was Bacigalupi’s intent.
While the author describes it as crime fiction, The City and the City can be considered a great melding of SF and the police procedural. As the title alludes to, two separate city-states occupy the same geographic space. For example, one building might belong to one city, while the neighboring building might belong to the other.
Even more challenging are the laws that forbid residents of one city to enter, interact with, or even see or hear the other city although it might be right in front of their eyes and ears. So, in this setting, a young woman is found murdered with her face disfigured. Inspector Tyador Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad of Beszel, investigates and discovers the victim is the foreign archeology student Mahalia Geary who had been linked to political turmoil involving Beszel and its twin city of Ul Qoma. His investigations eventually lead him to legendary Orciny, a third city existing in the spaces between Beszel and Ul Qoma. Things get very complicated for Tyador as he gets caught up in internal and external warring factions, including some secret groups, but eventually prevails.
China Miéville has received acclaim for other novels including, 2002’s Perdido Street Station and 2011’s Embassytown.
It is set thousands of years in the future with protagonist Breq, a so-called ancillary, a segment of an A.I. that once animated a spaceship called Justice of Toren and its soldiers. The plot has two timelines, one in Breq’s present when she’s fighting for (vigilante) justice for her lost ship in the form of a special gun, and one nineteen years earlier showing how the ship was lost in a covert war.
Leckie successfully creates a universe in which what it means to be a ‘person’ is quite different but is still very relatable. Interestingly, the Rachaai rulers do not acknowledge gender, adding an additional aspect to the story as everyone is assumed to be a she. This novel is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human.
The award-winning series continues with Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015).
Author and psychologist N.K. Jemisin burst onto the fiction scene in 2010 with her Inheritance novel Trilogy, followed by her Dreamblood Duology, and her Broken Earth series. She is the only author in human history to have won the Hugo Best Novel Award in three consecutive years.
The Fifth Season is the first book in the award-winning Broken Earth series, featuring a world ravaged by geological catastrophes every few centuries. It (sort of) has three parallel point-of-view characters Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, Orogenes, who have special, but forbidden, energy-controlling abilities. Older mom, Essun, has hidden her power from her family, but when her son accidentally reveals his power, her horrified husband kills him and kidnaps their daughter.
Essun follows them to try to rescue her daughter, undergoing many challenges along the way. Damaya is open about her powers and is forced to work for the oppressive government. She achieves some success, and it turns out she takes Syenite as her adult Orogene name. Later that Essun is an even older Syenite. Plot twist! Ultimately, things don’t look too promising for our protagonist as a new ‘Season’ begins.
The award-winning series continues with Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017).
The Calculating Stars is the first book in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut alternate history series—and, really, who could miss a series with that name?
In Kowal’s world, Earth suffers a 1952 meteorite strike in Chesapeake Bay, destroying the east coast; the consequent climate change threatens the rest of the planet. The protagonist, brilliant mathematician pilot Elma York, joins the space race as humanity reaches for the Moon and then Mars. Kowal addresses many issues related to gender and discrimination. If only there was a real International Aerospace Coalition…
The series continues with The Fated Sky (2018).