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15 Essential Science Fiction Novels of the 19th & 20th Centuries

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

An amazing tale of human’s first contact with non-humans, which is also a prequel to Vinge’s earlier book, A Fire Upon the Deep. The world-building and vast scale of the plots is amazing, with wildly imaginative human and human-like cultures competing with each other and an alien culture of spider-like, hibernating creatures. If you like Vinge’s writing, there’s a wonderful collection of his short stories that is both filled with great stories, as well as instructive for any writer as a way to see Vinge’s writing style grow and evolve over time: The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge.


adams_hitchikersA Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Join normal human Arthur Dent and extraterrestrial Ford Prefect on an irresistible, hilarious romp through the galaxy. If you like Monty Python, Red Dwarf, and Douglas Adams’ writing for Doctor Who, then you’ll love the wacky satire throughout this book and it’s follow-up novels. Unforgettable in its rich use of humor and language, culture, anthropology, science, and horrific Vogon poetry.

russell_TheSparrow(1stEd)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Set in 2019, when humanity discovers its first extraterrestrials, politicians and diplomats debate what to do while the Jesuits send on eight-person mission of their own. Vivid descriptions of alien cultures and the struggle of highly believable characters to define what is humanity connect the experiences of the lone surviving priest when he returns to Earth to explain what happened. This is one of the rare few sci-fi books that attends to deep anthropological issues in the context of a religious character’s issues and doubts, without being preachy.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

A classic. After being hit on the head, Hank Morgan a Connecticut gun-maker finds himself in Britain, where is dragged off to Camelot and sentenced to death. But he uses his modern Yankee know-how to convince the king he should be saved, resulting in a series of successes and tragedies that become not only a centerpiece of American satire, but also a series of themes quite common in newer science fiction. An amazing mix of geography, history, folklore and imagination.


The Time Machine by HG Wells

This novel is among the earliest mentions of the idea of time travel, a richly imagined tale of the Time Traveler who encounters a future Earth filled with the Eloi and the Morlocks. Never too technical, but rich with humor, satire, and cutting commentary on the basic question of what will humanity be like in the far distant future?

miller_leibovitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

After nuclear annihilation, a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz discovers new relics and writings from Leibowitz himself, new symbols of hope from a time before the atomic holocaust. Infused with Latin and Catholic ideas, we readers might begin to wonder whether humanity would be able to progress or whether it is doomed to repeat cycles of its own terrifying histories. The narrative arcs across several hundred years, following the lives of monks stuck in a Utah abbey. The story is both amusing and comical, while also angry and eloquent.


Neuromancer by William Gibson

This is the novel usually credited with inventing and focusing the term cyberpunk. The main character, Case, is a kind of hacker who’s burnt out his brains but receives a tantalizing offer that could fix his mind if he’ll just finish a special job. Drugs, sex, rewired humans, a schizophrenic colonel, performance artists and a sassy gun-for-hire who has permanently implanted sunglasses. Case struggles to understand how to do his new job, and becomes suspicious of everyone. Flawed characters in gritty, tough situations — this novel is full of rich descriptions, terrifying events, and the chance for redemption.


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

The first of a trilogy, Red Mars chronicles the lives and problems encountered by the many first colonists of Mars, who are idealists fleeing an overpopulated Earth, hampered by transnational corporations, bickering governments, disturbing economies and the ferocity of Mars’ natural environment. This is a deeply researched, incredible tale that imagines intensely detailed, rich political, environmental and social problems as complex as any faced by those of us still on Earth. It is followed by Blue Mars and Green Mars, both also highly recommended.


The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

Set on a distant planet named Winter, the main character Genly Ai’s mission is to bring Winter into diplomatic relations with the larger galactic civilization. But first he must build understanding between his own people and the strange lifeforms of Winter, who can be either one or both genders all at once. Le Guin’s use of description and language are incredible, and the prolonged trek across a winter wasteland is one of the most memorable journey sequences in all of science fiction.


Dune by Frank Herbert

This is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who thanks to a drug know as the Melange, becomes a god among men on the desert planet Arrakis. This is a far-reaching, richly imagined new world full of greed, politics, nobility and freedom-fighters. If you like it’s depth and descriptions, you should definitely read the other books in the series. It takes a while to get used to the book — readers should try to stick with it for twenty or thirty pages before deciding to read the entire novel.


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

This is a long collection of short stories that all center on the colonization of Mars. Bradbury’s Martians are distanct, calm, and dream-like in contrast to war-mongering aliens of so many short stories. The terror arises then, out of the sheer inadequacies of humans as they try to adapt to Mars, and adapt for all the short-sighted and wrong reasons. It often feels to me that Bradbury’s writing is more like intensive poetry than science fiction, with an emphasis on his characters’ humanity (or lack of it).


Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The novel centers around Hari Seldon, who is a mathematician-psychohistorian, and who is able to predict an ugly future, a new Dark Ages and the utter failure of the galactic empire. He hopes to create a vast and useful encyclopedia, to encode all the best knowledge of the people, and in so doing preempt the fall of civilization. But he must struggle to find enough people to help him with such an immense task. The trilogy reads as a suite of adventures, but the underlying tension is profound, deep science fiction thinking and imagining. The idea of their being a kind of galactic encyclopedia, of course, is equally as much a part of Douglas Adams’ later satire, the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

This is the original plotting that laid out Asimov’s three rules for robots, exploring their roles in human culture through a variety of interlaced tales that are held together by the memories of Dr. Susan Calvin, who works for the corporation that developed thinking machines. Take these rules or leave them, Asimov’s ideas about robotics influenced audiences and science fiction writers for decades.


The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Go ahead and read the whole trilogy. Technically a science fiction story about a group of people who’ve forged a new home on a new planet, the tone, descriptions, and surroundings of this novel (indeed the whole series) read a lot like the better fantasy novels. Humans live in fear of a silvery menace that periodically falls through the sky, the Threads, which can be fought off by tamed dragons, who are constant companions and mind-melded friends of a special corps of humans, the Dragonriders. McCaffrey sets us into an amazing new world filled with intrigue at every turn of the page.


2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

When explorers find a strange monolith on the moon, they realize it is broadcasting an alarm signal to Jupiter. A mission is sent to Jupiter, on a spaceship equipped with an all-too human computer, HAL 9000. The novel was written at the same time as the movie, but for my money, is fundamentally better, filled with richness of imagination and Clarke’s trademark clarity of style.

Bonus book:

shelley_Frankenstein Image

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein uses the 19th century modern inventions of electricity and vivisection to reanimate the dead, in what is arguably the first science fiction story (from a time before the word ‘scientist’ was really even in use). With her amazing innovations, Mary Shelley influenced everyone, as far as I can tell. Definitely a must-read.

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