Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published February 16th 2020
Great science fiction from the "olden days"
This column started as a conversation on Twitter. A young-ish person asked the members of the Twitter Writing Community what classic science fiction books she should read to get a better feel for the genre, as all the books she had read were more recent (with the exception of Ender's Game). I proposed a few, and the comments and feedback were very positive.
That made me think about the books I would think every fan of science fiction should read. In my opinion.
Now, I decided to go for "classic" books, and to my mind, that's anything over 40 years old. So that means anything published before 1980. That's fine. There is very little modern science fiction that I actually enjoy as much as I enjoy all those old stories. Reading the classics does inform a reader – and a potential writer – of where the genre has come from, and where the tropes have either developed from or have not changed at all since. And these are all really good books as well! One thing to note, though, is that until fairly recently science fiction was a very male-dominated genre of writing. Many books have female characters that are one-dimensional (if any exist at all), and female writers were few and far between. It was the nature of the beast, but in more recent times this has started to be redressed.
Two things before I start.
First, book series I have counted as one book. That also means if the first of a series was published before 1980 and the last after, it still counts to me as a classic.
Second, I have decided not to include collections of short stories. Having said that, anyone who wants to read a classic science fiction tale should read the short story 'Streets Of Ashkelon' by Harry Harrison, which is not only my favourite short story ever, but has been regarded as one of the best science fiction tales to have been written.
So, in order of initial release, here are ten classic science fiction books I think all fans should read! (You will possibly notice a lack of Frank Herbert's Dune here: while a reasonable book, I just found it too long and boring too often to recommend it to new-comers.) I was close to including A Canticle For Lebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr., The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick… so feel free to try those out as well.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne (1870, 1872 in English)
The adventures of Captain Nemo in the Nautilus is possibly known by most people who read science fiction and/or adventure, at least by name. The tale of a man seeking knowledge but also revenge, and then disappearing at the end of the book is filled with pathos and some incredibly well-described adventure set-pieces. The submarine is a well-developed machine, way ahead of its time, and the responses of the people inboard are realistic. More than that, it was made into a not too bad Disney film starring Kirk Douglas!
The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
The classic alien invasion story upon which all others were based. Wells' descriptions of the machines the aliens use – the tripods everyone is familiar with, the bug-like capture machines, the initial landing craft – is especially impressive considering the time in which he wrote it. And the ending, where the Martians were defeated by germs (I'd say spoiler, but I'm reasonably sure most people are aware of the way it ends) actually had a touch of poignancy about it. Despite being over a hundred and twenty years old, it is still readable today.
Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel by George Orwell (1949)
"Big brother", "newspeak", "thought police". These are terms that have become a part of the language. All of them started life in this depressing novel of a future dystopia where everything is regulated, everyone is under constant surveillance, and even thinking things can get you in trouble, while what is said means absolutely nothing. Orwell certainly knew where the world was headed; he might have been off by a few years, but this is the world we live in today. And, yes, for many, it is this bleak. Winston and Julia do not get the happy ending; the state wins. Depressing, yes, but amazingly prescient and brilliantly written. The language might be a little stilted for some modern readers, but it is worth persevering with.
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)
This might be a bit of a cheat. This is essentially a collection of short stories published in various magazines, but they were put together to create a novel with the linking narrative of a doctor telling this to a reporter to demonstrate how robots and humans have come to live and work together. This is the book where the famous Asimov Three Laws of Robotics comes from. My favourite section is 'Robbie', the first story, such as it is, about a robot who is owned by a girl. The girl becomes attached to the robot, and when the robot is removed, the girl becomes distraught. The girl's parents take her to see Robbie at a factory, and he saves her from injury. It is amazingly well written. Asimov was such a good writer. And speaking of which…
Foundation (1951), Foundation And Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953) by Isaac Asimov
The original Foundation trilogy started life as a series of short stories, which were then put together into these three books. They are rightfully considered classics of the science fiction genre; these are the first books to really describe how a Galactic Empire would operate. It is more about individuals involved, not huge over-arching Galactic Wars. It is thoughtful, intelligently written and sometimes feels it goes beyond the genre. Then, in the later books, with the appearance of the Mule, the philosophical bent of the works becomes even more pronounced. I really enjoyed these books, and have read them more than once.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
A dystopian future where reading is banned, people are drugged up and spend their days with their eyes glued to screens… Hang on… Apart from the "banning" thing, Bradbury had a reasonably fair idea where people were headed, didn't he? This is not only a science fiction story but quite a stunning thriller. A fireman (they start fires to burn the books) takes a book, discovers a world he never knew existed, and then is desperate to get to where others are, each person a living book. Brilliantly written.
Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961)
This book can be a tough read not so much for the way it was written as for its themes. I know some people with a religious belief who cannot stand the book, which gives you an idea of some of the themes involved. A man born and raised on Mars comes to Earth, forms a church, is killed by a mob and speaks to them from the afterlife at the end. That is a pretty succinct overview of what is a complex and thought-provoking book. I admit – it took me two reads to get it completely.
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966, original short story 1959)
Algernon is a mouse given drugs to increase its intelligence. The story is written from the point of view of Charlie, a person with a mental disability who is given the same drugs. As he grows more intelligent, the language and syntax improve. And then Algernon dies and Charlie realises his own demise is imminent. He tries to reconnect with people and his past even as his intelligence fades to what it was. It ends with him hoping some-one will put flowers on Algernon's grave. This is depressing, looking at the way ethics can be trumped by science, and how the mentally impaired are maltreated, and most of all because of the fact Charlie knows what he once was and can never be again, and the profound impact it has on his sense of self. This novel goes beyond science fiction; it is truly moving, especially as Charlie's intelligence reverts to what it was. So amazingly well written.
Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1969)
This is a science-fiction anti-war novel, and it had an influence on me that I did not realise for a few years. It was the first book I read with non-linear narrative (I was in high school), and by the time I was 30 years old I was experimenting with non-linear narrative myself. In fact, the book I had published in September 2019 by Grinning Skull Press is non-linear in nature. But it is not even a patch on Slaughterhouse-5. The intergalactic zoo, the jumping to the future, the knowledge of his own coming death. I think this is a wonderful book. Not everyone I know who has read it understands it, so it might take a little concentration, but it is worth it. "So it goes."
Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) and the first two sequels (The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1980) and Life, The Universe And Everything (1982))
Yes, two of these books have come up before in a column, but despite it being one of the funniest books written, as a science fiction story, tackling philosophical issues and with an amazingly built universe, it is also so well developed. By not taking itself seriously, it actually makes the universe seem more like something we belong in, and are not just separate from. These three are really well written, funny and so good.
Ten science fiction books released before 1980 that I think everyone interested in the genre, or who just likes thought-provoking, good writing should give a go. I would also like to say that, with the exceptions of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and Flowers For Algernon, ignore the film versions. Read the books; they are so much better.,