This was a virtually impossible task. Put together a list of 50 must-read science fiction books and don’t make anyone angry. Science fiction is the most discussed and argued over genre in literature but it actually goes way beyond books and into film, TV, video games and even toys.
Here are the criteria I used. One book per author, so that was hard on the big three of science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, who each have multiple classic titles to their name. Attempt to show as many sub-genres of science fiction and plot themes as possible. Include early stories that influenced the genre as a whole and launched popular themes, even if those books appear a bit dated today.
I wanted to show the unbelievable breadth of this galactic-sized genre and, of course, I failed because this is just the tip of the spaceberg – there are probably 500 essential science fiction books, not 50.
The War of the Worlds is on the list, a famous example of invasion literature, but I could easily have used The Time Machine. For Ray Bradbury, there’s The Illustrated Man but I could have used Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles.
Many people include alternate reality novels as science fiction but I didn’t feel comfortable having them on the list as there’s not much science in that sort of fiction.
The list includes hard and soft science fiction. Hard science fiction features great attention to detail in the quantitative sciences, while soft riffs on the social sciences. You’ll also find space opera with its heroes and heroines on distant planets; cyberpunk, loved by nerds in goggles everywhere; time travel – a simple concept that’s been around since Mark Twain’s day; military science fiction where soldiers drive the narrative; dystopian fiction where society has usually gone awry; superhuman stories where humans develop new or greater skills (and that usually means trouble) and the always cheery apocalyptic fiction sub-genre (where we could be battling to avoid the end of Earth or struggling to survive after a catastrophe). There are many recurrent powerful themes such as machine and human relationships, aliens and human relationships, biological and ecological matters, and paranormal activities.
You are spoiled for choice – this list includes novellas, short story collections, a graphic novel and books from published 1864 to 2011.
For further reading recommendations, brush up on the Hugo and Nebula Awards - the winners and the shortlisted titles - and also the books published by Tor (who really know this genre, and fantasy, inside out), as well as Locus Magazine and the science fiction tags on LibraryThing.com.
by Jules Verne (1864)
Famous adventure tale that practically launched the genre in 1864.
by H.G. Wells (1898)
The Martians come to England. A famous example of invasion literature from 1898.
by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Set in 2540, this novel imagines a radically different future. So good, it’s taught in schools.
by Edwin Balmer & Philip Wylie (1933)
Earth must be evacuated because another planet is on a collision course.
by Olaf Stapledon (1935)
A superhuman novel where supernormal abilities lead to conflict.
by George Orwell (1949)
Social sci-fi from the era of Soviet growth where a nasty political system defines the plot.
by George R. Stewart (1949)
Written shortly after Hiroshima, this post-apocalyptic novel imagines the rebuilding process.
by Isaac Asimov (1951)
The original novel in a pioneering series. An immense plot that I cannot sum up in a sentence.
by Ray Bradbury (1951)
18 masterful and highly imaginative short stories from one of the genre's masters.
by Alfred Bester (1953)
First Hugo winner. A science fiction detective novel featuring telepathy.
by Clifford D. Simak (1953)
Clever invasion novel from the 1950s where aliens introduce devices to disrupt Earth's economy.
by Hal Clement (1954)
A world-building novel on a planet with variable surface gravity. Insect-like locals, human explorers.
by Leigh Brackett (1955)
Following a nuclear war, religious sects create an anti-technology society.
by John Wyndham (1955)
Set way in the future in a fundamentalist society. Telepathy makes people different.
by John Christopher (1956)
A virus kills off all strains of grasses & causes a famine. England descends into anarchy.
by Robert Heinlein (1959)
Fine example of military science fiction from the late 1950s. A war against bugs.
by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)
Douglas Adams described it as a “tour de force” – a novel set amid a Martian invasion of Earth.
by Pat Frank (1959)
Frank imagines the effects of nuclear war on a small town in Florida.
by Walter M. Miller (1960)
Post-apocalyptic science fiction where monks are trying to preserve vital books and humanity.
by Theodore Sturgeon (1960)
20th century Charlie Johns wakes in a future filled with overpopulation, bigotry and no gender.
by Stanislaw Lem (1961)
Humans study a planet while the planet studies them. A novel about miscommunication.
by J.G. Ballard (1962)
The ice-caps melt and the world floods. Set in 2145, the protagonist has adapted rather well.
by Brian Aldiss (1962)
An ecological-themed novel set in the far future with fantasy elements.
by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Children’s fiction, with fantasy elements, where a government scientist goes missing.
by Frank Herbert (1965)
This novel has sold 12 million copies so can’t be bad. Spice before the Spice Girls.
by Harry Harrison (1966)
Set in 1999, a novel about over-population. Basis for the movie, Soylent Green.
by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson (1967)
Age-themed science fiction. Everyone is killed off at 21 but there are “runners.”
by Philip K. Dick (1968)
A bounty hunter tracks down escaped androids in a post-apocalyptic future.
by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Le Guin is prolific and a must-read for everyone. This book details an imagined universe.
by Michael Moorcock (1969)
A time travel story where a man goes from 1970 back to AD 28 to meet Jesus.
by Larry Niven (1970)
From the golden era of the early 1970s. Set in 2850 in a radically different universe.
by Arthur C. Clarke (1972)
A classic set in the 22nd century, an alien starship enters the solar system.
by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky (1972)
Roadside Picnic is a classic alien-encounter story from Russia’s most important sci-fi writers.
by Joanna Russ (1975)
A novel following the lives of four women in parallel worlds. Feminist sci-fi.
by Frederik Pohl (1976)
Cyborg (where man & machine combine) science fiction as humans attempt to colonize Mars.
by Stephen King (1978)
Apocalyptic novel where a virus kills off most people and it is nightmarish for survivors.
by Douglas Adams (1979)
A radio series. Adams introduced a huge and much-needed dose of humor into the genre.
by Alan Dean Foster (1982)
Imagines the Humanx Commonwealth where humans exist alongside aliens.
by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Violent futuristic sci-fi where the Earth is threatened by an ant-like species.
by Iain M. Banks (1987)
Pure space opera. First in the Culture series, this novel features a sprawling space war between species.
by Lois McMaster Bujold (1988)
Quaddies are genetically modified humans used as slaves. They become obsolete and face a grim end.
by Dan Simmons (1989)
A complicated story-within-a-story novel with humanity spread across the galaxy.
by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
First in a readable trilogy imagining the colonization of Mars.
by Paul Di Filippo (1996)
Biopunk short story collection – a spin-off from cyberpunk featuring biotechnology.
by Neal Stephenson (1999)
Historical science fiction adored by Geeks for its technology themes.
by Scott Westerfeld (2005)
A novel based on cosmetic surgery for teenagers. Modern science fiction on a modern issue.
by John Scalzi (2005)
Scalzi's debut saw humans fighting aliens Heinlein-style except old people pull the trigger.
by Cory Doctorow (2007)
Modern cyberpunk in post-9/11 era. Teenage hackers battle Homeland Security over civil rights.
by Chris Ware (2008)
Post-modern plot in a graphic novel. A sci-fi writer & his girlfriend are the last humans on Earth.
by China Miéville (2011)
Set in a small town on a distant planet, this 2011 novel depicts interaction between aliens & humans.