A reader unwisely asked me to list what I consider the essential authors of science fiction. My only qualification to answer is that I am an enormous fan of the genre, and by ‘enormous’ I mean, of course, obese.
On the other hand, as G.K. Chesterton once famously observed, even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. Having disqualified myself to answer, let us first, as befits a philosopher, examine the question before attempting to answer.
Let us first say what the question is not. I was not asked my personal favorites: those should be obvious enough from my own writing, which steals shamelessly from, er, I mean, pays homage to writers who shaped my imagination: A.E. van Vogt, Olaf Stapledon, Poul Anderson, Keith Laumer, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Cordwainer Smith, Ayn Rand, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis. If you read what I write, you can tell who I like. If you do not read what I write, then why are you reading this essay? There are also authors I admire, but I cannot steal from them because I lack the skill to copy them: Gene Wolfe and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The question is also not about the historical impact of the books discussed. It is not a list of award winners. It is a list of books which I think every devoted science fiction reader should read in order to understand where his favorites fit into the grand scheme of things.
It is embarrassing to wax enthusiastic over some science fictional idea, such as that all the life around us may be an illusion as in the film THE MATRIX, only to discover the idea has been done better earlier (as in the film DARK CITY) and is indeed a tried and true, if not shopworn, trope of the genre, as old as NIGHT OF DELUSIONS by Keith Laumer, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH by Philip K. Dick, ‘They’ by Robert Heinlein, WOLRD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt, or even ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll.
Contrariwise, it is fascinating to see where certain tales are specific answers to other tales from earlier in the genre, even a rebuttal. The metaphor I propose is that all science fiction books that rise above mere space adventure yarns are attempting to take part in a generations-long conversation about the basic ideas that define the genre. Unlike spoken conversation, the Long Talk takes place at book length, or at least short story length.
What makes a book ‘essential reading’? On the surface, the answer is easy enough: a book is essential reading if all the Cool Kids who read and discuss the genre have read and are discussing it. You need to know what the Cool Kids are talking about to participate in the Long Talk.
Digging deeper, what makes a book something the Cool Kids talk about? While there are occasional statistical anomalies where a book is praised and discussed for some reason unrelated to the book’s quality, for the most part the books that everyone talks about are talked about because they are great. Even if they are bad literature, they contain great ideas.
I will try to be objective, that is, to give due credit to books I dislike or even despise, in order correctly to portray their place in the genre. But, because I am listing essential books, and not great books, I will pay more (perhaps undue) attention to their predominance in the conversation of ideas I here call the ‘Long Talk.’
What is the Long Talk about?
Science Fiction is the mythology of the scientific age. It is the attempt to wrestle with (or play with) the revolution in human thought that accompanied the scientific revolution.
In science fiction, man is not the exile of paradise seeking to regain his lost immortality, a creature little lower than the angels but the lord of creation. Instead he is the son of pond scum which evolved from ape-man to cave-man, and shall soon — if our nerve fails not — evolve from space-man to superman.
In science fiction, Man is simultaneously the microscopic inhabitant of a tiny world whirling about an insignificant star in a minor arm of a galaxy lost among myriads, and the destined race that will one day rule the sevagram. (And if you don’t catch that reference, there are books on this list you should read.) And yet science fiction cautions that if we do not mend our ways, the far future will not hold Men Like Gods in their shining towers and laboratories who control the secret energies of the cosmos and practice nudism and vegetarianism; instead by the year 802701 AD man will have devolved into pretty and hapless Eloi and troglodyte cannibal Morlocks. (And if you don’t catch that reference, start at the beginning of this list.)
History turned a corner during the scientific revolution. Our perceptions of past and future changed as did our notion of man and his place in the cosmos. The old image of the universe was shattered. Once the common man was aware that technological change had changed how his lived his life differently from his forefathers, then adventure stories speculating about how differently his posterity would live became sellable. Curiosity about conditions in the new universe prompted speculations and dreams, from wild flights of fancy to sober considerations of what the future held.
There are those who, for perhaps perfectly laudable reasons, want to claim continuity between science fiction and the imaginative epics of former ages, quoting the flights to the moon by Lucian of Samosata, Dante, Cyrano de Bergerac and Ariosto as ancestors to the more sober moon-shots by literature’s first men in the moon: Hans Pfaall, Impey Barbicane, Professor Cavor, Richard Seaton, Kurt Newton, Leslie LeCroix. Nonetheless, spiritual journeys or voyages by hippogriff-back do not take place in the modern, scientific view of the universe. Science fiction cannot be older than the science which inspired it.
I artificially limit myself to 50 authors, and I exclude works set in worlds like Middle-Earth, Narnia, Earthsea, Prydain.
So, first on any list of essential SF reading we must list those who created the genre
- FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Listed because it is not just a first, but the first. The principle preoccupation of science fiction is the central theme of this antique work: namely, the role of Man in the scientific conception of the universe.
- FLATLAND by A Square (Edwin Abbott)
- TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne. Scientific speculation so solid that it later came to pass. Likewise, FROM EARTH TO MOON. Likewise, MASTER OF THE WORLD.
- THE WAR OF THE WORLDS by H.G. Wells. Invented the trope of alien invasion; solid speculation about the nature of Darwinian evolution. Likewise, THE TIME MACHINE. Likewise, THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU. Likewise, THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.
- ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster. An brief and ironic rebuke to Wells.
Verne and Wells are the inventors of Hard SF and Soft SF respectively. Verne invented the trope of describing his fictional machines in sufficient detail to convince the reader they were real. Ironically, the fact that the much less realistic Wells (Antigravity metal and time machines are fantasy compared to submarines and aircraft) used fantasy science to make telling commentaries on the human question keeps him more current and more readable than Verne.
- VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay. This inclusion on this list is problematical, since this obscure work had little effect on the genre. Nonetheless, it is the single most sustain act of imaginative excess I have ever read, and the first attempt to use science fictional tropes to address philosophical, metaphysical, and religious questions.
- LAST AND FIRST MEN by Olaf Stapledon. First literary attempt to plot the course of future history from the present (1930) through the rise and fall of eighteen distinct evolutions of mankind into new races until some two thousand million years hence. The sheer ambition of the conceit is enough to call it essential reading. Likewise, STARMAKER.
- “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges. Included here to provoke an argument on what constitutes science fiction.
- NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell. Perhaps the most sobering dark satire of all time; so sobering some critics do not realize it is a satire.
- A BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
While the literary giants were treating SF with serious ideas, pulp magazines in America were burgeoning. Those who would stuff our more embarrassing ancestors into the closet when guests call are doing the genre a disservice.
- THE MOON POOL by A Merritt. The transition from ‘Lost Race’ adventures to true science fiction. Also, THE METAL MONSTER.
- A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Invented the Planetary Romance genre. This book is surprisingly mature science fiction, despite its juvenile theme and style. Likewise, GODS OF MARS and WARLORD OF MARS.
- SKYLARK OF SPACE by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. Invented the Space Opera, or, at least, the large-scale intergalactic adventure tale. Also, SKYLARK DUQUESNE, including merely for the audacity of its final sequence, when whole galaxies are obliterated. Likewise The Lensman Series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith includes THE GALACTIC PATROL, THE GRAY LENSMAN, SECOND STAGE LENSMAN and CHILDREN OF THE LENS. This is the quintessential Big Budget Space Opera, and the first tale to postulate a peaceful civilization embracing utterly alien species.
- ‘A Martian Odyssey’ by Stanley G. Weinbaum. First depiction of aliens who are not really monsters, and not merely humans. (Albeit that honor is disputed with the Lensman series, see above.)
- ‘With Folded Hands’ by Jack Williamson. Also see LEGION OF SPACE and LEGION OF TIME. See also ‘The Moon Era.’
- ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ by H.P. Lovecraft. Also, ‘A Whisperer in Darkness’ and ‘Shadow Out of Time’. Arguably outside the science fiction genre, these weird tales contain a mythic power of cosmic awe and mystery far beyond their meager literary merit.
The Golden Age writers of John W Campbell Jr did work in short stories and novellas which give these shorter work disproportionate influence on the genre. Unlike their pulp predecessors, more scientific verisimilitude was included in these yarns.
- ‘The Black Destroyer’ by A.E. van Vogt. This story started the Golden Age. SLAN by A.E. van Vogt. A successful depiction of a superhuman by a human author. Also, WORLD OF NULL-A and PLAYERS OF NULL-A. Likewise, THE WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER. The right to buy weapons is the right to be free. Now largely forgotten, at one time van Vogt was considered one of the Big Three of SF (the other two being Asimov and Heinlein, see below.)
- FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov, including FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE and SECOND FOUNDATION. The decline and fall of the galactic empire. Also, CAVES OF STEEL, THE NAKED SUN. First example of science fiction detective stories.
- “The Man Who Sold the Moon” by Robert Heinlein. First use of a coherent future history. Also “Requiem” and “Green Hills of Earth” also see ORPHANS OF THE SKY by Robert Heinlein. First use of multigeneration ships. No one can call himself an SF reader who has not read a Heinlein juvenile. Any of them will do, but I suggest HAVE SPACE SUIT WILL TRAVEL, CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY and STARMAN JONES. Also, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Heinlein. For its time, a daring countercultural satire. STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein. First military SF.
- FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman. A counterpoint to the above.
- OUT FROM THE SILENT PLANET by C.S. Lewis. This is Lewis’s reply to H.G Wells. Also PERELENDRA and THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH.
- CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C Clarke. This is Clarke’s reply to Lewis. It also forms the definitive expression of science fiction’s central myth. Also, 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY. Also ‘Against the Fall of Night’ aka CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C Clarke. Also RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA.
- CITY by Clifford Simak. Also WAY STATION
- MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement. Widely regarded as the best ‘world building’ done in an SF tale.
- ‘The Man Who Counts’ by Poul Anderson. A fine Nicholas van Rijn tale. Likewise ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness ‘ Likewise, BRAINWAVE, TAU ZERO or HARVEST OF STARS. You have to read some Poul Anderson to be a SF reader.
- THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester. Likewise, THE DEMOLISHED MAN.
- DINOSAUR BEACH by Keith Laumer. Few other time travel stories attempt to cover all the aspects of what time travel would entail.
- THE BIG TIME by Fritz Leiber. And this is one of the few. I would include CONJURE WIFE or OUR LADY OF DARKNESS on this list, but they are not SF.
- ‘Nightwings’ by Robert Silverberg. No short story better captures the eerie sense of immensities of time.
- RIVERWORLD by Philip Jose Farmer. Or perhaps WORLD OF TIERS instead.
- ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin. This is included as the crucial short story that put a period to the Campbellian optimism of the Golden Age.
The Silver Age writers concentrated on literary devices rather than big ideas.
- ‘Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison. Not being to my taste, I am not sure why this tale is famous, but it is an essential of the genre.
- THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K Dick. As above.
- LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny. Myth and SF blended. Also, NINE PRINCES IN AMBER. Technically not SF, but widely influential on all later multiverse style stories.
- FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury. Likewise, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Mr Bradbury is lyrical and subtle, and considered one of the ABC’s of SF. (The other two being Asimov and Clarke, see above.)
- STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner. The quintessential ‘serious’ SF book about problems which history has since shown to be non-problems, such as overpopulation.
- THE JEWEL IN THE SKULL by Michael Moorcock. He has written more earnest works, some dreadfully so, but a science fiction reader should read up at least one of the Eternal Champion stories. Also, ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ and THE KNIGHT OF THE SWORDS.
- ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes. Science fiction so poignant that even muggles read it.
- A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller. Future Dark Ages done right.
- DUNE by Frank Herbert. A sober version of a Swords and Spaceships story, but with everything from messianic prophecies to anti-computer jihads to meditations on ecology thrown in. Also, first Hugo winner.
- ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ by Cordwainer Smith. Likewise, ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ and ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ and ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’ These stories established new ground for SF.
- LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K LeGuin. Lyrical and profound, this book broke new ground in what might be called anthropological science fiction. Likewise, THE DISPOSSESSED. LeGuin rapidly colonized what Cordwainer Smith had pioneered.
- ‘The Dragon Masters’ by Jack Vance. Also ‘The Last Castle.’ Also THE LANGUAGES OF PAO and EMPHYRIO. See especially THE DYING EARTH.
- MOTE IN GOD’S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. A first contact story the way it should properly be done.
- RINGWORLD by Larry Niven. The quintessential ‘Big Dumb Object’ story. See also ‘Neutron Star’ as the crucial example of how to do a scientific puzzle tale.
The Bronze Age is characterized by a shift from short stories to novels and trilogies, and the influence of media SF on the genre. Thanks to STAR WARS science fiction was hereafter mainstream.
- The New Sun books by Gene Wolfe: THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, THE SWORD OF THE LICTOR, THE CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR and THE CITADEL OF THE AUTARCH. Also, URTH OF THE NEW SUN. These are Wolfe’s homage to Jack Vance ‘Dying Earth’ tales. See also ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’.
- NEUROMANCER by Walter Gibson. Invented the Cyberpunk genre.
- SNOWCRASH by Neal Stephenson. Made Cyberpunk worth reading. See also, THE DIAMOND AGE.
- HYPERION by Dan Simmons. Chaucer in space.
- THE WATCHMAN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. So I included a comic book on my list. What are you, a snob?
I limited myself to fifty must-read authors, and no doubt overlooked some giants in the field. But, this being the Internet, I can always sneak more names onto the list here below in days to come.