This list arose from a conversation with Ian Sales and J.P. Smythe. We all admired Abebooks' Essential Science Fiction list, but, as is human nature, found the list problematic in completely different ways. Being gentlemen, we decided to settle this the old-fashioned way - by scampering back to our various Internet hidey-holes and writing our own lists. (Ian's is here; James' is here.)
- No more than one novel from each author
- No collections or anthologies
- You can only list books that you have read.
The last one is the nastiest of all, as I can't even fake it - this exercise has definitely exposed some fairly notable gaps (say... Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Diana Wynne Jones, Octavia Butler and anyone not Anglo-American) in my reading. Oops.
I also excluded two more categories: my co-conspirators (I particularly recommend both Mr. Sales' Adrift on the Sea of Rains and Mr. Smythe's The Explorer) and finalists for this year's Kitschies ('cause that's a bit weird).
The term "essential" caused a bit of existential wibbling, but I finally decided on a rough sort of definition that these fifty books, as a set, had to paint some sort of picture of the best (the full spectrum of many bests) that science fiction can offer.
Enough of the caveats, here are my first 25 picks, in chronological order. The remaining 25 will be posted tomorrow.
1. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1812). This position works both chronologically and in terms of overall ranking. If there's a single, inarguable, essential work of science fiction, here it is. And what's not to love? Brilliant character development, twisty-turny plot, cutting-edge scientific ideas, moral ambiguity, even astounding, epic action. This one has it all.
2. George Tomkyns' The Battle of Dorking (1871). One of the original "invasion literature" pieces, Mr. Tomkyns' short novel describes the invasion of a contemporary Britain by a militarily-superior Germany. It is the grandfather of many apocalyptic scenarios (as it begat Wells' The War of the Worlds) and alternate histories (as it begat through If It Had Happened Otherwise). The Battle of Dorking is also a great example of how science fiction is about the "now" and not the future. Inspired by the Franco-Prussian War, Dorking examines fears that the British may be complacent in their military and naval superiority, and the days of Empire could be on the decline...
3. Edward Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884). Probably should get this out of the way early - Flatland is the closest thing I'll have to "hard SF" anywhere on the list. Ostensibly a math text (and, in all fairness, a really good one), Flatland is also a brilliant social satire, lampooning the social rigidity, classism and misogyny of the time. Also, cool illustrations.
4. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895). Mr. Wells is one of the few authors that could conceivably be on here multiple times, but with Tomkyns (above) covering off invasion scenarios, the choice is narrowed down pretty swiftly. The Time Machine uses a science fictional concept to talk about class (and the Morlock/Eloi trope has informed countless novels since then), has some fairly badass pulp adventure sequences and covers the "dying earth" scenario. This book should be essential for the harrowing final chapters alone.