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50 Essential Science Fiction Novels (Part 2: 1979 - 2011)

50 Essential Science Fiction Novels (Part 1: 1812 - 1979)

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.)

The rules:

  • 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.

Frank18181. 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.

5. Charles Fort's The Book of the Damned (1919). Fortean 'science' and the concept of rigorously approaching unusual phenomena has informed a century of science fiction, up to and including the X-Files, the works of Warren Ellis and, arguably, the recent trend towards occult detection/police procedurals. It narrowly bumped Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912) for this spot. Although The Lost World is a more enjoyable book, it is tough to compete with Fort's encyclopedic survey (and accompanying rationalisations), which encompasses everything from fairies to UFOs. 

6. George Orwell's 1984 (1949). Another obvious selection. With a tip of the had to Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Orwell's got this spot sewn up.

Man who sold the moon7. Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951). I like Heinlein, and not just because he's got a soft spot for Kansas City. But Stranger in a Strange Land is gobbledegook, The Puppet Masters is silly and Starship Troopers is an argument for fascism. The Man Who Sold the Moon is a excellent example of mid-century American capitalist SF. Delos Harriman, the man obsessed with "owning" the moon is one of the most intriguing protagonists of the era - brains over brawn, ambition over scruples, and, ultimately, both endearing and tragic. 

8. John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951). As an aside, do you know how nuts this book sounds? "After a solar flare blinds the human race, predatory plants reign supreme." But Mr. Wyndham's 'cosy catastrophe' does so much right - it doesn't fuss with the science (swiftest, most hand-wavey apocalypse ever) and it focuses on an everyman. There's no epic quest to somehow (a bit late) 'save the day', i.e. The Stand, there's just the plodding, persistant maneuvering to survive.

9. Sarban's (John William Wall) The Sound of His Horn (1952). One of the great alternate history novels. A British POW who finds himself in a world where the Nazis won World War II and have established vast baronial estates across Europe. Utterly petrifying and beautifully written. Touches on eugenics, which is a nice SF touch, but that's an afterthought.

10. Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon (1953). Sorry Mr. Burroughs, but Ms. Brackett did it better. Ms. Brackett's best space fantasy probably took place in her short stories, but The Sword of Rhiannon (originally The Sea-Kings of Mars, but her publishers thought readers were getting tired of Burroughs and wanted to hit a different audience) is still a brilliant book. It is easy to get bogged down in SF being "about" this and "about" that (it is the self-declared "literature of ideas" [shudder]) - but it is essential that we don't overlook the fun. And the adventures of archaeologist-renegade-thief Matthew Carse? Lots of fun.

11. J.T. McIntosh's One in Three Hundred (1954). A not-so-cosy catastrophe. The sun is growing, Earth is doomed. Humanity throws itself into a desperate effort to mass-produce spaceships and fling as much of the species as possible towards Mars. A grim little tale, made more so by McIntosh's dry telling of planet-wide torment. Also a fine example of reconstruction/terraforming SF. Nudged out Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1993) and Liu Cixin's The Wandering Earth (2000).

12. Richard Matheson's I am Legend (1954). The most uncosy catastrophe of them all? The last man on Earth (or is he?) ekes out a tormented existence in a world overrun by vampires. Again, an everyman catastrophe, rather than an epic battle for redemption. When Mr. Matheson does turn the plot towards a "quest", the ultimate conclusion is, even 50 years later, shocking. There are ten thousand science fiction novels emphasising Homo sapiens' assured predominance, this one does not.

13. Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955). Possibly the second-best novel of science fiction horror ever written, a metaphor so compellingly written that it (ironically) addresses both Communism and McCarthyism and the progenitor of four different films. (Like The Day of the Triffids, this is another one that just sounds ridiculous as a one-liner: "Alien plants take our lives." What is it with plants?)

The_Dragon_in_the_Sea14. Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (1956). So here's a weird one. Were this list ten books, and not fifty, I'd slap Dune on it without thinking twice. It is a sprawling epic that touches every possible theme... but I'm not sure it is the essential volume for any of them. With the (relative) space allotted by having fifty books, The Dragon in the Sea is my pick. A claustrophobic tale, Dragon follows a submarine crew tasked with snaffling oil from the "East" in a post-peak oil world. Both as a picture of Cold War tension and a discussion of ecological consequences, this book is hard to beat.

15. Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine (1957). That's right. Over Farenheit 451 (1953). Superficially, Dandelion Wine is a wistful of a romantic era - apple pie Americana as painted by Norman Rockwell. But it doesn't take much reading to realise that this book is actually astoundingly heavy: a coming of age story about death, loss and the inexorable passage of time. The "Happiness Machine", one of the book's few overtly science-fictional elements reinforces these themes, a fragmented story about a futile attempt to distill 'joy' in the face of reality. 

16. Macalypse the Younger and Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst's Principia Discordia (1959). Like The Book of the Damned (above), the Principia's influence is too vast to ignore. Essentially the batshit Bible, it outlines the basic precepts of Discordianism: a conceptual religion based on the worship of chaos. The Principia both leads and epitomises two key trends in the science fiction of the era: a change in the epic narrative from Good vs Evil to Law vs. Chaos (later captured in the work of Michael Moorcock) and a subversive humour (later reflected in Kurt Vonnegut). 

17. Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962) Probably the finest alternate history ever written, made more so by the fact that Mr. Dick's complicated triple-blind addresses the nature of history (and our understanding of it) itself. If that sounds ridiculously complex, it is... and yet still his most approachable work.

18. Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962). If there's one sub-genre that gets short shrift on this list, it is science fiction intended for children or young adults. (Possibly because so much vintage SF is appropriate for all ages? Discuss.) Ms. L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time is a genuine classic, introducing four-dimensional travel to generations of young readers to this very day.

19. Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962). For one, it still remains the best summary of the ethical arguments (both sides) around behaviour change. For another, it is linguistically brilliant - as carefully crafted as Tolkien's Elvish (but without a drop of pretension). And, for the third, potentially the greatest example ever of making a evil (or chaos, see above) empathic. 

Survival project20. John Muller's (Lionel Fanthorpe) Survival Project (1966). Fanthorpe wrote over 180 science fiction books for Badger Books, 89 produced in a 3 year period alone (that's one every 12 days). I've not read all 180, but I'm pretty convinced that no great literature lurks in there. However, Mr. Fanthorpe is essential because he's the epitome of an era - quickly produced, character-devoid narratives based around thin (often absurd) ideas and whims. An era that shows no signs of coming to a close. It is fun to skate around the top of the glacier, but most science fiction is Fanthorpian.

21. Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968). Most of Clarke's great stuff came in his short stories, and, as the book and the film were created simultaneously, it is easy to credit 2001 with influence across both media. Probably the best SF horror story (alluded to above), as well as an interesting (if vaguely incomprehensible) plot that simultaneously makes individual humans all-important while, as a species, renders us insignificant. Bonus points: putting HAL on here means I can ignore everything having to do with robots until this point. It (the impulse is to call HAL "he") not only wraps up all the Asimovian cyber-blah, but also moves it on, dare I say it, monolithically.

22. Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Another author I'd rather have on here for short stories - The Compass Rose (1982) hits many of the same themes, but, in my eyes, more enjoyably. Still, this is about gender and understanding - I have sympathy to the argument that the book is becoming dated, and even more sympathy for the argument that its successor is sadly overdue.

23. Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives (1972). Oddly, Mr. Levin's one of the few authors that I would've liked to put on here twice - The Boys from Brazil is significant in the way it weaves science fiction into a contemporary thriller. But The Stepford Wives is the stronger of the two - a nice bit of horror, but an even nicer bit of social commentary in the way it describes the loss of agency that comes with adulthood, marriage, suburban living and just plain "being a woman in the 1970s".

24. J.G. Ballard's High Rise (1975). Pretty sure, of all fifty, this is the choice that'll prompt the most "WTF?". But, you know what, had it a drop of SFnal content, I would've put on Concrete Island instead (so ha). High Rise is social science fiction and, like Stepford, encapsulates the hopes and fears and aspirations and disappointments of a generation. (And, things being cyclical, I'm pretty sure High Rise is now relevant again.) Beyond that, it is one of the best dystopian novels ever written, made all the more compelling by the fact that it takes place in microcosm and in the here and now.

25. Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979). Has there been a better or more thoughtful humorous SF novel? I don't extend the "essential" invitation to the rest of the series, which made the full metamorphosis from "funny" to "silly" to "deserves a spanking".

What'd I get wrong? What'd I get right? What egregious oversights need to be instantly corrected?

Don't forget to check out the other two lists as well: Ian Sales' and J.P. Smythe's. The second half of all our lists goes up tomorrow. Get those knives nice and sharp!