We are all fans of science fiction here. Some of us enjoy it more than the others, but most of us read it. Most literary genres have their share of crappy novels, but it often seems like ours has it in spades. Which I guess is par for the course, seeing how it originated from pulp fiction stories of mystery and high adventure published in high volume magazine. Despite that pedigree, it has managed to produce some of the most thought provoking and interesting works to date. Unlike many of the more mainstream genres, it encourages authors to ask strange what-if questions, and build their narratives on far fetched premises. It can be used to tell captivating cautionary tales, to examine human condition under the most bizarre circumstances, and to engage in complex thought experiments. A good SF book will leave a long lasting impression upon the reader. A great book will imprint itself on his consciousness.
This is especially true for those of us who grew up reading it. Geek jargon is full of expressions and vocabulary borrowed wholesale from SF classics. We use them as a cognitive shorthand, or pass them around as inside jokes. But not everyone has been lucky enough to be born into this environment. For example, I never really read SF as a kid, because there was simply none in the house. My dad liked pulp spy novels and action thrillers, while my mom would mix up her high brow readings (she would discuss with her co-workers at the teacher’s lounge) and guilty pleasure romances. Neither one of them was particularly interested in what they considered to be stories exclusively about space ships and astronauts. So it wasn’t until I made friends with fellow geeks somewhere between Junior High and High School, and had to constantly ask my new friends to explain things to me that I realized I missed a large chunk of cultural geek heritage. To get me up to speed, a friend constructed a rapid geek-education kit for me. He came to school one day, started pulling out books from his backpack and stacking them in front of me. That day I came home with copies of Felowship of the Ring, Dune, I-Robot, Neuromancer and a few RPG manuals. I have been playing catch-up since then – and even now, I sometimes still discover classic SF books that I missed out on.
I figured we could sit down, and try to put together a list of essential, classic and important works of SF that could help kids who like me, did not discover their inner geek until much later in life. Naturally, I don’t want to list every good SF book under the sun. There are scores of really good novels out there, but I want to limit this list to the important ones. Books that became part of our culture, our vocabulary or introduced then revolutionary concepts. I also don’t really want to get much into the Fantasy realm, because as far as I’m concerned the entire genre consists of a single worthwhile book cycle: Lord of the Rings. Everything else is more or less a variation on that theme. Some stuff is more successful than the other, but for the most part Fantasy novels do not usually generate a lot of memes that ingrain themselves into the geek culture.
Feel free to chime in, and post your favorites in the comments section.1984
by George Orwell
1984 is the quintessential dystopia novel. One of the first and the best of the kind. Orwell’s vision of the distant future 1984 Englad is bleak, frightening and evocative. So much so, that certain phraseology from the book bleed into our common language. If you have ever heard expressions such as “Big Brother”, “thought crime” this is where they originated. It is a cautionary tale about runaway totalitarianism, but at the same time an eerily prophetic example of how ruling party can use propaganda and technology to lull citizenry into apathy. Most importantly it is the book you need to read in order to participate in any slippery slope internet discussion about politics. 1984 references much classier than Godwinizing the trhead.A Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
The other important dystopian story, written from a completely different angle. It’s characters live in a world that is as scary and dysfunctional as that of Orwell’s but without the totalitarian overtones. Huxley talks about runaway consumerism and self indulgence resulting in degeneration of the society. Much ahead of it’s time, and a sobering, important read especially for us – transhumanist and singularitarians. It paints a bleak picture of a complacent society too busy keeping track of their entertainment news, social gossip and participating in “orgy-porgies” to pay attention to the intellectual and spiritual malaise and emptiness of their existence. A world not unlike the one we live in right now. Not as memetic, and iconic as Orwell’s work, but an important complement. Also, Huxley imagined a advanced eugenics program used to breed custom-tailored laborers for specific jobs without actually knowing about DNA or genetic engineering. We would later see themes from this novel echoed in countless other works – like the movie Gattaca for example.Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury
Yet another mainstream classic, but at the same time an important read. Bradbury’s observations of American anti-intellectual attitudes and it’s love for mass media pulp entertainment shoveled down their throats is just as astute now as it was when the book was published. It is a book about a conflict between ignorance and knowledge; about information suppression; about the mind numbing effects of the mass media. This is the book that Michael Moore referred to in the title of his controversial 9/11 documentary, and the conceptual framework Kurt Weimer used as a basis for Equilibrium.
by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov coined the “3 Laws of Robotics”, and we have been arguing about them ever since. This collection of short stories is his attempt to put the concept of hard-wiring fail-safe controls into artificial minds could work. It is quite ironic how the Will Smith movie adaptation of this book completely trashed the philosophy Asimov spent most of his life defending. Whether you agree with it, or think the idea of constraining our AI progeny with logical paradox booby traps is silly, it is something you cannot ignore. Furthermore reading this book is essential to understanding some more recent work – such as the excellent Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect which I reviewed recently.
Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlen
In this classic Heinlen story a man raised by martians returns to Earth to give us a fish-out-of-water look at the eccentricities and irrational quirks of the human condition. If you have ever seen us geeks using an expression “to grok something” to denote a deep, complete understanding – we got it from this book. While the social mores, and attitudes are somewhat dated (Heinlen was describing contemporary America of his time) it is still a fascinating read about an alien who is bewildered by our culture, embraces it and then tries to change it for better via active participation.
by Arthur C. Clarke
Short and oft overlooked novel which described the humanity reaching the Omega Point, long before it was fashionable to talk about singularity. Granted, Clarke’s vision of human ascent to godhood is a biological outcome of evolution, not technological rapture we have grown to expect these days. Still, I feel that anyone who haven’t read it is missing out. It is one of classic books that I have only discovered very recently but it should be on the mandatory reading list for all SF enthusiasts.
by Robert A Heinlen
This is the book that started the “Space Marine” trope. If you have ever played a game, or watched a movie featuring heavily armored men, shooting their way through swats of aliens, this is where it came from. It was the source of inspiration for much of the Warhammer 40k imagery – down to the hydraulic-assist power armors and jump-packs. The movie adaptation of the book is quite an interesting animal. It threw away the bulky power armors, and high tech warfare, and embellished Heinlens serious philosophical thoughts about military-fascist driven societies to turn them into self-aware campy awesomeness that has almost nothing to do with the original. If you like Space Marines, you should read this book.
by William Gibson
The novel that more or less started the entire cyberpunk subgenre, and also probably indirectly contributed to the invention of steam-punk (which is essentially is to fantasy what cyberpunk is to hard SF). That silly concept of cyberspace being a virtual reality like environment where you can actually fly around, and interact with visual representation of data is actually Gibson’s idea. This is where it came from. Personally, I was never a fan of this idea but still – it has captured the imagination of millions. Neuromancer is worth reading for one other reason – Gibson predicts the arrival of of crypto-anarchist youth groups. His Panther Modersn resemble modern day Anonymous in more than one way.
by Frank Herbert
Dune series remains one of my all time favorite SF cycles. It was one of the earliest and best takes on the whole concept of feudal space empires, star faring blue bloods, and stellar scale court intrigues. It inspired many imitators, and next to Heinlen, Herbert was the other great influence that helped to shape the Warhammer 40k universe. Dune, being Herbert’s magnum opus simply overflows with his thoughts about philosophy, ecology, terraforming projects, religion, human consciousness and expansion of it via the user of mind altering substances. It depicts an empire held in thrall by a scarce commodity harvested from a backwater, unhospitable world. Personally I consider the Dune series to be more or less the “Lord of the Rings” equivalent of fantasy. Granted, it is not as monumental, or genre defining – but it fulfills the same role of being that one massive, epic tale that everyone has read. Whether or not you read through the entire series, Dune is essential.
The Left Hand Of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The most popular book from Le Guin’s Hanish cycle, a story about gender relations in genderless societies. It is possibly one of the very few novels that will force you to re-examine how much your gender influences your identity, and how much or how little does it matter in the long run. A fascinating look at an utterly alien, but at the same time very human world and it’s inhabitants. It is also one of the novels that popularized the concept of “Ansible” – a device that used quantum entanglement effect to facilitate faster-than-light communication.Roadside Picnic
by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Aliens landed on Earth, and then left. If they have even noticed our civilization they didn’t think we were worth talking to, or even acknowledging. The sites of their landing were strewn with incomprehensible, and dangerous garbage. The novel follows the exploits of Stalkers – scavengers making a living extracting useful artifacts from these landing zones, where a single misstep may mean permanent disfigurement, instant death or something much worse. This short novel inspired several movies, and the popular video game series – and yet, it is often ignored by the American SF enthusiasts.Hyperion
by Dan Simmons
Hyperion is by all accounts a cult classic. It is modern hard SF at it’s best – thought provoking, riveting, disturbing and well written. The book is the first part of a series spanning for thick tomes, but remains the most striking of the cycle. In fact, it is probably the best thing that Simmons have written to date. The novel is composed of a number of short stories, differing in their themes but masterfully woven into a larger narrative. Simmons aptly mixes post singularity topics, cyberpunk themes, religious mystycism, horror and mystery in an explosive blend that should not be missed.Anhathem
by Neil Stephenson
To me, Anathem is an amazing work of SF. Chock full of philosophy, science and dense discussions about the quantum physics of the human consciousness. Some people find this book’s pace slow, and the endless dialogues between the philosopher-scientist monks too dry. But to an agile mind it is a high pressure fountain of ideas, sprayed directly onto your frontal lobes. I kept reading it not necessarily because I wanted to find out what’s next, but because I wanted the characters to go onto another philosophical or scientific tangent.Accelerando
by Charless Stross
This is a book you ought to read if you don’t fully comprehend the concept of singularity. The story captures this elusive moment in progress, following a very dysfunctional, broken modern family. It is an inspired, chilling and well described vision of a possible fate of the human race in the near and far future. Stross captures both the giddy excitement of those of us who ride the bleeding edge of technology all the way towards the omega point, and the concerns and woes of post-singularity civilization. Stross is a very good author to start with if you want to get into the very recent, very modern singularity themed SF.
Now it is your turn. What important works of SF have I missed? What else should be on this list? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you decide to pick up any of these novels, could you use the picture-links above? Amazon said it will give me monies if you do.
Suggestions from the readers
Below are some books suggested by the readers in the comments: