My writer’s heart beats to the drum of a hyperdrive engine. I absolutely love science fiction. I have been heavily influenced by the great science fiction novelists whose worlds I have traveled while lying on the couch, riding on a bus or sitting in the back of the family car on vacation road trips.
Great science fiction does three things: (1) It uses the genre to comment on some universal question that all of us have as humans. (2) It creates a believable world that is immersive and flows like water through our psyche, and we don’t get hung up on the particulars of the science part of the fiction. (3) It is well written, placing it in the category of literature rather than entertainment.
And so begins the list. Tighten down your hyperdrive motivator. (Caveat: These are in no particular order. That would be criminal.)
1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – This book is a modern day version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Like that classic novel, it is a book of fantastic questions. What is the answer to life, the universe and everything? (42 – Ha!) What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? Is the human race significant? Is there a God? To Adams, the earth is one big computer created by a race of beings who once made another computer to find the answer to life, the universe and everything, only to get an answer that “you won’t like”. However, just as the earth was making it’s final calculations on the “question”, the Vogons destroyed it to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The novel is also very well written, full of some of the best ironic wit known to man. It is still widely loved by millions of people, and still sells well.
2. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle – Many people have seen the films, the television show, the action figures, but few of you have probably read the book. There is a reason they keep resurrecting this novel in different incarnations. It deals with a fundamental question that is so provocative it goes to the heart of what makes great science fiction. It deals with the question of humanity and what that means. What separates us from the animals? Are we any different? What makes us different? I once read this book as a teen and couldn’t put it down. The novel is so much different from most of the film adaptations. In the novel, the apes have vehicles, medicine, art, literature, culture, and humans are the animals. Taylor is actually passed around from owner to owner. It is also a novel about value and honor and dignity. It is great science fiction because it easily hits all three characteristics listed above.
3. Neuromancer by William Gibson – Before Neal Stephenson wrote Snowcrash (which is not on this list but I could only choose 10) Gibson created the genre of “cyberpunk”. This author is responsible for inventing the terms cyberspace, hacking and if not for this novel, The Matrix Trilogy would not exist. It asks the fundamental question about how technology and humanity will coexist. How will technology blend with our everyday lives. We haven’t quite reached the level of implants that allow us to communicate with computers, but that day is coming. Many of us are already hopelessly tied to our smart phones. Gibson’s future explores the various moral and ethical questions that human/technological interaction raise.
4. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – If we don’t include Asimov, then we are not including one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. He may be one of the greatest writers of all time having annotated the Bible and the works of Shakespeare as well. To choose one of his groundbreaking novels, Caves of Steel would have to be the one. The novel was written because Asimov wanted to prove that a detective story could be told in a science fiction genre. It is about two detectives, one a human and the other a very sophisticated android, who work to solve a murder that could cause an interstellar diplomatic incident. Asimov (as he does in his famous novel I, Robot) uses the android to comment on human nature. Even though robots can only understand things in terms of mathematics, the android exhibits a sense of morality in the end, suggesting that the murderer be treated leniently in the end, seeing that evil must not be destroyed but only changed into good. This novel is a perfect example of Asimov’s genius.
5. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein – (Ignore the films. They are trash and not anything close to the novel’s brilliance) Heinlein, another great master, wrote many incredible science fiction novels, namely Stranger In a Strange Land and Tunnel in the Sky, but for me Starship Troopers must be included in this list. It masterfully demonstrates all three of the characteristics for great science fiction. Written in 1959, it is strangely able to predict most of the history that happened since then, and even more strange are the technological predictions that came true. The reason it is on the list is that it is in many ways a treatise on what Heinlein thought about a society. Several chapters flash back to a class called “History and Moral Philosophy” that the main character Johnny Rico must take as part of becoming a citizen of their fictional world. Through these flashbacks, Heinlein expresses the theme that social responsibility requires being prepared to make individual sacrifice. The book has also been banned in several countries, being called fascist, racist, militaristic and utopian. The point is that great ideas sometimes have to strike a nerve with people. Heinlein hides his treatise inside a plot about soldiers preparing for war with giant bugs. As Hitchcock said: “That’s the maguffin; the thing that the audience doesn’t care about that drives the story along.”
6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – If an author has an award named after them, then they are probably someone important. Philip K. Dick is one of these people, and this novel is one small reason for it. Shakespeare once wrote in the play Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man? Full of form and reason.” This novel explores this idea to such a level that no one since has been able to do better. If we create humanoid life and give that life every function that our bodies and brains are able to do, then do those creatures have a soul? If they have a soul, the do we have a soul? One can see the multitude of questions this begins to dredge up. The novel is probably one of the most powerfully philosophical journeys a reader can take. If we as writers can mimic Dick’s ability to explore these ideas while crafting such a compelling story, we have reached a level that is seen by few.
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – We must include Mr. Bradbury, and his masterpiece is this amazing novel (even though Hertzog’s film adaptation is plodding). The novel explores the fundamental question of knowledge and what that means to us. I remember teaching this novel one year and we read the passage where Bradbury explains how their society had eventually eliminated books. It turns out that society had a greater need for recreation and sports than academics, and eventually the books became too long to read (even the shorter ones). They condensed the books, but no one wanted to read them because of the competition of sporting events and television and then the books made people think bad thoughts so they outlawed them. How many times have my classes been interrupted because of an extra-curricular activity? How many athletes are gone from class for tournaments and play-off games? My students don’t read because there are so many distractions for them (the internet, video games, texting, social networking). Oh, Bradbury! Nostradamus has nothing on you.
8. Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan – This novel has probably one of the best opening sequences, where a 10,000 year old human in a space suit is found on the moon. It explores the fundamental question of “where are we from” and “where are we going” as a human race. It follows a great premise in that it shows how a new discovery may re-write our history or cause us to rethink our place in the universe. A great science fiction novel will surprise the reader with something because many of us are jaded and think we know what to expect when reading a science fiction plot. This novel is full of these surprises.
9. The Postman by David Brin – This novel is the quintessential post-apocalyptic epic. It follows an ordinary man who dons a postman’s old uniform who reluctantly becomes a symbol of hope for a hopeless humanity. It is also a novel that is dripping with symbolism. Humanity has been destroyed because of its foolish reliance on technology and war to give it safety, only to discover that those two things were the cause for their downfall. It explores our notion of a hero, criticizes current society for relying so much on military strength and money as a measure of worth, and shows the true nature of humans: when all of our nonsense is stripped away, we are capable of boundless compassion, generosity and love.
10. On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony – This novel, by another giant of the genre, is about a man named Zane who is about to commit suicide, sees death coming for him, shoots death and then assumes his “job”. The novel, in a rather strange and wonderful way, explores the ideas of fate, death, existence and life through the eyes of a human being who realizes that all of those mystical jobs are actually performed by normal human beings. It is probably one of the best representations of exploring a philosophical topic through the use of the genre.
I hope this list was good enough for you. If you have any others you would add to the list, then by all means post away. Your suggestions are welcomed freely.