New science fiction is wonderful. I love John Scalzi, Joshua Fforde, Hugh Howey, and all the rest. But as with any genre, you get more out of a book if you know the classics that came before it.
John Scalzi, for example, makes old ideas fresh, with twists on themes that you never realized were old until he shined them up so pretty. Old Man’s War is even more fun if you know Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.
from Sergeij Zwaan’s design site: https://sergejzwaanid.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/futursitic-design-versus-science-fiction-design-1/
A second reason for reading the classics is that the authors of these books have literally shaped the future they write about.
Social barriers broke down and new ideas gained strength because readers discovered them in great books. Science fiction can play with our minds in a way that nonfiction can’t. It’s one thing to see a mystifying new feat of engineering announced on the news. We don’t even understand it half the time. But in a novel, we get to see what a new thought or invention could do. We can fly through black holes, meld with machines, or rebuild society from the ground up. And that gives us ideas for the real world.
Like Star Trek in the 60s with its little 3.5 inch square computer diskettes, or Deep Space 9 in the early 90s where everybody held a 5 by 7 inch computer that anyone today would recognize as an iPad . . . Yeah, that’s why those particular designs ended up in those sizes. And that is Majel Barrett Roddenberry holding them.
So, this is my list of the best, most classic SF books, for all lovers of the genre. I do not include fantasy. I am inserting links to Amazon’s most economical editions, just in case you can’t wait. And these are not numbered, because that implies best to least, which is not true.
Jules Verne comes first, because he IS the Father of Science Fiction. He wrote wild adventures before anyone thought of calling them science fiction:a Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. . . pick one, any one! In fact, you can download The Collected Works of Jules Verne: 36 Novels and Short Stories (Unexpurgated Edition) to your Kindle for $1.99. Think of it — all those great stories that you read in abridged, illustrated form when you were a child can be yours to enjoy for just two bucks!
If you’ve never read Jules Verne — or if you’ve only read the comics or seen movies based on his books — you’ll be surprised at just how engaging and exciting the books actually are. The man could tell a story. He sets a fast pace and throws in all the scientific jargon and measurements of his day, some real and some fictionalized. There’s a reason these books have enthralled generations of readers for over a century. They are GOOD.
So pick one of his stories and enjoy.
First US Edition. Clearly, flashy covers were not invented in the 19th century.
Next, The Time Machine (Dover Thrift Editions) by H. G. Wells. It’s 120 years old but I think it’s the first time travel book ever. Every such adventure since owes something to The Time Machine, because every author since has tried to either create the same Victorian thrill, or something completely different. According to this Wired article, “Rise of the Machines: Why We Keep Coming Back to the H. G. Wells’ Version of a Dystopian Future,” all dystopian literature goes back to The Time Machine, which H. G. Wells intended as a warning against the unprincipled use of power that science and technology bring. So there.
Also, many TV shows, movies, and modern books — like the wonderful The Map of Time: A Novel by Felix J. Palma — make reference to it in a big way. To be truly well read, you should familiarize yourself with the book.
Wells was no slouch; his The War of The Worlds (this link goes right to the .99 Kindle version) came out three years after The Time Machine, in 1898. This is the book behind Orson Welles’ famous Halloween broadcast of 1938 — the radio show that had all America believing that aliens had attacked Earth. Again, with so many movies, books, and TV shows drawing on the book for inspiration, it’s a must for SF fans.
In an early episode of MASH, Hawkeye coaches Radar on how to talk to a nurse who loves classical music. You know, Mozart, Bach, all the biggies. Hawkeye says, “Bach is easy. If she brings him up you just smile and say, “Ah . . . Bach.” ”
So, “Ah . . . Heinlein.”
Two books from Robert Heinlein are on my list, although he wrote many more and all are great. The first, Stranger in a Strange Land (Remembering Tomorrow) would be tops to almost anybody. How would a human raised by aliens on Mars react when he is finally brought to Earth? He understands so little, but his piercing insights into our quirks are profound, even troubling.
Since the novel is set in a future century, there are many innovations that I’ve been waiting decades to see — including a career path I’d love: that of a professional witness. In Heinlein’s near-future, all technology can be compromised; no system is hackproof. In the end, we’ve come to realize that only trained individuals of impeccable honesty can be trusted to relate the truth of so many events. I still want to be a professional witness when I grow up.
The book won a Hugo Award in 1963: Heinlein’s third.
Stranger in a Strange Land lets us see everything through the eyes of a naive outsider, but not all of Heinlein’s work paints so broad and complex a picture. The second Heinlein book I’d recommend is Starship Troopers, another Hugo winner. In a way, this is just a straightforward account of a future soldier’s life. But through his eyes, we learn how a military force has become ensconced into a special niche, how it protects, how it must be separate from all other types of society. Heinlein goes deep, but he is always fascinating and entertaining.
And you cannot help but love his heroes.
One book I did not love is Neuromancer by William Gibson. It’s got lots of violence, tough-guy talk, and the action takes place in a seedy, flashy, dog-eat-dog world. But doesn’t that describe a lot of video games? Neuromancer coined the word Cyberspace. The main character is a down-on-his-luck hacker who gets caught up in a web of corporate giants who have blurred the line between reality and the virtual matrix in their battles for control.
Won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick Award in 1984. So the fact that I had trouble caring about the self-serving central characters doesn’t mean diddly. This novel invented cyberpunk, and is well worth your attention.
The last must-read novel on this short list is Dune by Frank Herbert. Dune and its follow-up books knocked Lord of the Rings out of its long-held number one position on all lists of fantasy and SF. Blending mysticism and science in galaxies where science has become, in effect, magic, Dune presents flawed heroes, bloated villains, and concepts that I could not even imagine when I first read of them back in the early 70s. Superstition is as big a factor as science, and corporate greed and feudalism (with noble houses on top) run the universe. Ecology and the wasting of worlds is a major theme.
George Lucas used a lot of the imagery and ideas from Dune in his own Star Wars movies, which gives readers an advantage when tossing out bits of trivia during screenings. “Sand worms — know where Lucas got that idea?” Now you do.
Stay tuned for Part II …