My Top 20 Science Fiction Novels
In an earlier post, I listed my (purely subjective) list of the top fantasy novels/series. Here I will attempt a similar post with the related genre of science fiction.
- Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (1950). Not really a novel, but a collection of connected short stories that introduced Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” It should be read as the necessary prequel to the three (3) “Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw” novels: The Caves of Steel ; The Naked Sun; The Robots of Dawn. The film starring Will Smith was only loosely based on Asimov’s work–combining some of the “Susan Calvin” stories in I, Robot with The Caves of Steel.
- Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966). Many of Heinlein’s novels (e.g., Starship Troopers) are vehicles for him to preach his libertarian economics and militaristic view of the world. But he is a superb storyteller and his engineering background (like Asimov’s background in physics) enables him to write very convincing “hard science” fiction. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinlein’s ode to the American revolution, projecting a future in which Earth’s moon has become an international penal colony (a hat-tip to Australia) and, with the aid of a self-aware supercomputer named Mike, revolts from Earth and becomes Luna Free State.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984). A feminist novel of a dystopic future in which an increase in infertility combines with the takeover of the U.S. (now become the Republic of Gilead) by a militaristic and patriarchal religious fundamentalism to create a nightmare society for women–especially those few who are still fertile and are forced to become “handmaids.”
- Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents. The late Octavia Butler was one of the few African-American women to write comercially successful science fiction. Here she projects a dystopic near future where gang crime leads to the breakdown of U.S. society and of the ability of a young woman to forge a new society out of this disaster that can reach the stars–an achievement that partly depends on the spread of a new religion, “Earthseed.” Butler also shows how the kind of driven personalities that can fundamentally change history are often poor at interpersonal relationships–since the second novel is told through the eyes of the estranged daughter of the heroine of the first.
- Frank Herbert, Dune (1965). The sequels are not as good, but still worth reading. This is a “space opera” and science fantasy of a far future where humanity has become a galactic empire that has become decadent and feudal. It also projects salvation through a messiah who is a result of a breeding program and genetic manipulation, played out on the desert planet of Arakis (Dune). The film wasn’t so hot, despite roles by Patrick Stewart (later Capt. Picard and Prof. X), Dean Jones, and Sting.
- Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1954). Benign alien visitors who look strangely like the devils of earthly legend (giant, red, horns, tail, wings) help earth people leave the species’ childhood and prepare for the next stage of evolution–a stage that these aliens cannot themselves achieve.
- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974). If Heinlein’s Starship Troopers glorifies war, Haldeman’s novel is the rebuttal. Published at the end of the Vietnam War (and with that clearly in mind), Haldeman projects a future war between earth and an alien species that, because of the time distortions near the speed of light, goes on for centuries–and is all based on miscommunication between the two species. Haldeman’s Forever Peace is not connected. Another great Haldeman classic is All My Sins Remembered which Haldeman wrote in reply to the super-spy novels and species which show such work taking no toll on the spies. Haldeman’s spy is an Anglo-Buddhist recruited precisely FOR his strong moral code–which then haunts him more and more in his career as a super-spy.
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1954). In a dystopic future, an oppressive government stays in power by suppressing books and reading. Education is by rote memorization giant televisions combine with recreational drugs to keep everyone “happy” suburbanites. All houses are fireproof (and believed to have always been so) and “firemen” do not put out fires, but find and burn hidden caches of books (while those who hide books are sent to reeducation camps). “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature at which book paper burns. A resistance gathers in small groups away from populated areas with the task of each person so memorizing one book completely that s/he becomes that book, preserving learning and literature until the current dark age is over. This is Bradbury’s warning against the dangers of McCarthyism—but it works equally well for similar movements since the mid-50s.
- Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars; Blue Mars; Green Mars. A trilogy concerning the colonization and terraforming of Mars. Very realistic science combines with a strong story concerning the likely problems of colonists, personal and cultural clashes, and major ecological concerns to form 3 really strong books. I promised myself that I would only include one entry about Mars, though I have been fascinated by it since my childhood.
- Anne McAffrey, “Dragonriders of Pern” series. Science fiction with fantasy trappings: A colonized planet is cut off from contact with Earth civilization and because of a unique threat (spores from a nearby planet called “Thread”) devolves into a low-tech, feudal civilization. An indigenous lifeform (“fire lizards”) so resemble the dragons of earth mythology (except for size), that they are genetically engineered to be larger and to breath fire–and to use telepathic and teleportational abilities to help ESP-gifted humans fight this threat as “dragonriders.” McAffrey wrote numerous works of science fiction, but it is the Pern books for which the “dragonlady” will always be known best.
- Carl Sagan, Contact (1985). Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote the definitive novel of first contact between earth and an alien species.
- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990). Highly entertaining cautionary tale about the headlong rush of genetic engineering (going on at breakneck speed in the food industry).
- Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959). A brilliant novel about a cyclic view of history (scientific advance followed by destruction, a new dark ages, a slow climb out and the whole cycle repeats), clashes of religion and government, and the dangers of global nuclear war.
- David Brin, Earth (1990). An ecological cautionary tale of the near future. This is a murder mystery set in 2038 in which the attempted victim is Gaia, the earth itself. Technology is both blessing (it allows truly global village networking that helps find clues and mobilize responses) and bane (it is responsible for the ecological abuse of the planet).
- Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Tale of an encounter between an emissary of a “normal” society and a society of gender-benders.
- David Brin, Glory Season (1993). Excellent tale of a world settled by radical feminist separatists who have the genetic know-how to create a rural utopia where women dominate and men are only needed tangentially and mostly live apart from women. This is a kind of counter-Handmaid’s Tale in which Brin argues for sexual equality and for societies in which men and women need each other. He demonstrates that it is not only male-dominated societies which can go deeply wrong.
- Pat Frank, Alas Babylon (1959). An early cautionary tale of nuclear war. One of the first to question the 1950s propaganda that nuclear war would be easily survivable and winnable.
- Octavia E. Butler, Kindred is a time-travel story that includes painfully realistic descriptions of slavery in antebellum 19th C. America.
- Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain (1993). A novel of genetic manipulation to create children who don’t need to sleep. In a recession, they are blamed for everything wrong and need to find a sanctuary colony.
- Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novels. They were eventually supposed to form a complete Childe Cycle, but I think Dickson died before the historical prequels could be written. This is a saga of human evolution. The advent of star travel and colonization splits humanity into sub-species: the pure scientists; the people of (fanatical) faith (the “Friendlies”); the mystics and philosophers; and the ultimate soldiers (the Dorsai who, like the ancient Swiss, live on a planet of such barren resources that they are forced to send their sons and daughters out as high-paid mercenaries in the wars of other planets). Eventually, the scattered fragments of humanity must reunite with the fragments having been greatly enhanced. Whether or not one like’s Dickson’s overall saga, his Dorsai novels are really good reads–and he even includes one, Lost Dorsai, about a Dorsai who becomes a pacifist yet still embodies the fierce courage and strength of will of the Dorsai soldiers. It is only now, after Dickson’s death, that we can view the (incomplete) series as a whole. He did not write the novels and short stories in order and was supposed to write a series of historical novels beginning with the 14th C. to go with the science fiction ones.
What have I overlooked? What have I rated too high? What have I not valued enough?
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