Modern science fiction can be seen as the true mythology of our age. Barely a genre a century ago, it has flourished and diversified to embody our hopes and fears as a technological civilization. At its best, true science fiction can symbolize the perils and promises wrought by our technological adolescence. What follows is a list of 10 essential science fiction works, some well-worn classics with a few undiscovered gems thrown in. This list is by no means all inclusive of the thousands of fine science fiction tales out there, and is only representative of definitive works of hard science fiction that make a pivotal statement, sparked a sub-genre, and/or bothered to get the science right along the way.
10. The Difference Engine
This novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published in 1990 triggered the modern Steampunk genre. In the novel, Charles Babbage’s proposed calculating machine of the same name is actually built, ushering in an early computer age in the 19th century. The Difference Engine began a stream of alternate timeline science fiction and branched off of the cyberpunk (of which Gibson was also a master) genre into a whole avalanche of “what if?” stories that continues today.
Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote one work of science fiction, and his contribution stands alongside the works of Arthur C. Clarke as one of the best in hard science-based fiction. The story deals with the ramifications of first contact with an alien civilization, and was made into a 1997 film of the same name. The one stretch that Sagan had to take with the novel was the construction of a wormhole, or Einstein-Rosen bridge as a plot device for interstellar travel suggested by physicist Kip Thorne. A science fiction writer is allowed one “break the rules of nature” card, but only one.
The Dune series by Frank Herbert is to science fiction what The Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. In the original Dune, Herbert successfully creates an alternate world right down to every minute detail. Dune was also a forerunner to franchises such as Star Wars, which parallels several concepts (desert world, esoteric orders, and medieval characters in a futuristic world) that George Lucas later brought to the big screen. And to top it off, Dune had an ecological message of accountability and sustainability long before such thinking entered the public consciousness.
7. Rendezvous with Rama
Lesser known than his work with Stanley Kubrick on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama tells a first-contact tale from a unique but convincing perspective. In the near future, a huge cylindrical spacecraft of alien origin enters our inner solar system on a hyperbolic trajectory. A team is dispatched to rendezvous with it, and the mystery of the seemingly inert world within begins. In terms of science Clarke knows his stuff; and as in 2001 and Childhood’s End (see below) Clarke presents us with a Lovecraftian universe of higher order civilizations that are mysterious and not totally within our realm of comprehension.
More of a political novel, George Orwell’s 1984 stands as a warning against the path that modern society could take and is essential reading for a citizen of the modern age. 1984 finds its place among this list as one of the first tales of a terrifying future dystopia. Along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s other landmark work Animal Farm, 1984 cautions against the parallel race between technology as savior versus its use in the curbing of freedom and human nature. Orwell penned this work immediately after World War II and used the terrors of Stalinist Russia as a template for the book. The novel has become such a cultural icon that people who have never read the book are familiar with concepts such as Big Brother or double-think that were first put forth in the novel. It’s been said that when we stop remembering Orwell’s warning, the world of 1984 may finally arrive.
A.A. Attanasio is one of the few writers of the last few decades that never truly got his due. Along with his groundbreaking work Radix, Solis presents us with an utterly alien view of the future. The tale is of the “Rip Van Winkle” variety, as we’re thrust into a remote and terrifying future along with the chief protagonist. This stands alongside works such as Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man and Olaf Stapleton’s Last & First Men in its sweeping scope. Solis takes a look at what exactly it means to be human, as that definition becomes stretched and frayed as the main character searches to rebuild his shattered identity.
This first novel in the galaxy-spanning series stands as a cornerstone work by prolific author Isaac Asimov. Think of Foundation as the “Rise and Decline of the Galactic Empire,” as Asimov actually conceived the idea for the books on the historical fate of the Roman Empire. A trilogy, the first book Foundation leads into the collapse and sets the stage for the rest of the series. Only his I, Robot series comes close in terms of astute social commentary.
The 1970s novel Ringworld by Larry Niven is a real mindblower by an author who vies with Clarke for the title of the most scientifically literate. In the book, a future humanity discovers a civilization that has crafted a ribbon-shaped world around a distant star. Think of it as a partial Dyson sphere. Again, the mysterious builders are obviously far beyond the technology of man and the mystery of their ultimate demise drives the book and the subsequent sequels. Other landmark works from the author include Out of Time (another Rip Van Winkle tale) and the alien invasion thriller Footfall.
2. War of the Worlds
Alien menaces. Time travel. Social dystopias. It’s been said that H.G. Wells came up with every good science fiction theme and later authors merely built upon them. The opening lines of War of the Worlds are still as thrilling to read today as they were as a kid, and the novel has gone through numerous adaptations. Of course, the most famous was Orson Wells’ 1938 Halloween broadcast that sparked a panic in the United States and catapulted the work into icon status.
1. Childhood’s End
Yes, Arthur C. Clarke gets two outstanding entries into this list. Childhood’s End is a first-contact novel that deals with the end of man’s technological adolescence and the ultimate next step into evolution. Of course, that step may seem strange and terrifying to our backwards mindset. Like Footfall and Ben Bova’s Millennium, Childhood’s End may read as somewhat dated as the Cold War was in full swing when it was first published, but the work still stands as one of Clarke’s best.