Science Fiction has brought us some of the best stories known to mankind in its vast and expansive appeal with images of futuristic cities and dystopian worlds, space and time travel and even alternative realities. It has held up a mirror to our actions today in order to give stark warnings of tomorrow and has predicted the advances and follies of mankind. Despite this, it remains an oft-derided genre of literature that rarely gets the same attention and respect as others considered more 'serious'. Here we document 17 of the essential sci-fi novels that will prove doubters wrong and provide a must-read list for any avid fans.
1. Dune - Frank Herbert
The epitome of epic fiction, this novel is the first in a saga that tells the story of feudal societies all coveting the rule of a singular planet that produces a profitable and highly valuable substance. Taking into account the themes of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion it reflects back the power struggles and emotional conflict that humanity inflicts upon one another every day. It had environmental concerns as well as declining empires and fraught power struggles that inspired five sequels from Herbert himself, several prequels from his son and countless pop-culture references. The intricacy and detail put into the world building are immense is size and scope and shows Herbert as a master of his craft that created several sci-fi tropes eternally referenced in film and literature. Published in 1965, by 2003 it was confirmed as the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time and it is not hard to see why.
2. 1984 - George Orwell
Following the exploits of one man trying to rail against a police state he is trapped in, it is a warning about what can happen when governments are given too much power, 1984 takes a stance an anti-authoritarian rule and, worryingly, seems to have predicted certain technological advances that have come to fruition. Especially poignant what with the current zeitgeist of security and information sharing this book is a worse-case scenario of a future that we are not in control of. Although largely seen as a terrifying nod to the communist and fascist states that sprang up in the 2oth century, it remains thought-provoking today what with the use of information technology to track data and control populations. Chilling, insightful and brilliant.
3. Neuromancer - William Gibson
The first novel to win all three of the major science fiction literature awards (the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award) Neuromancer is the story of a hacker who must enter into a virtual reality world in order to crack its database, it offers up visions that he must determine whether they are reality or just a projected image. The source material for The Matrix films as well as being credited for the inspiration behind the cyberpunk movement, this novel stands as a true great of the genre.
4. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Widely considered gothic-horror, this masterpiece of a novel has all the tropes of science fiction and can be thought of as the first of the genre with its use of futuristic scientific advances based on research happening at the time and the use of human emotion to try and understand and justify these developments, it holds dear to it everything that sci-fi does. A scientist creates a living being from the body parts of the deceased and yet, despite its life, it feels alienated and alone and questions the very premise of humanity. Not an easy read but pure perfection for those willing to put in the effort.
5. Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Tense, exciting, smart and, above all else, funny. This is Adams' masterstroke where he swipes at the petty and ludicrous nature of human bureaucracy expanding it to the scale of an entire universe and applying the same absurdities to intergalactic situations. When Earth is given a demolition order, Arthur Dent discovers his long-time friend can help him flee the planet as he is actually a writer for a guide book on the galaxy. Flung into the far reaches of outer space he is unwittingly entangled in an adventure to obtain the meaning to life, the universe, and everything when all he really wants is a decent cup of tea. A wry look at what alien life might be like if it is out there, it is actually far more telling of Adams' opinion on humanity as he speculates they may be as petty and irreverent as we are.
6. The Stars My Destination (Tiger! Tiger!) - Alfred Bester
Known as Tiger! Tiger! in Britain, this novel is one of the very first influences of the cyberpunk movement and follows the story of an uneducated man who is abandoned and imprisoned before climbing the social ladder on a mission of revenge. A dark and twisted look at the future filled with corporations as powerful as governments and people who get cybernetic enhancements to better their social standing, it is based on the classic, The Count of Monte Cristo. With comments on social class and corporate welfare, it remains a timeless reminder of what society could well become.
7. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
A story of soldiers returning home from wars fought with ever increasingly advanced weaponry, to cities they now don't recognize because of the technological advances alongside the destruction. War has emptied them and now they have no solace to return to and, despite being set in the framework of time travel future visions, it actually reflects the author's experiences as a Vietnam veteran. Telling on the nature of war, the damage it wreaks, physically, emotionally and mentally, it is perhaps a sad indictment of society that this novel had to be set in the future to capture the zeitgeist of the time.
8. The Drowned World - J.G. Ballard
Ballard is a writer who saw war as a child, traveled across the globe, away from his first homeland as a teenager and lost his wife as a middle-aged man. His pain and suffering are wrought throughout his novels and The Drowned Word is a fine example of this as he depicts a future where the world is under water and the lack of attention to environmentalism is costly. Even more poignant in the current day and age, it is actually the examination of the base human desires and driving factors that make it a stand-out novel despite its ecological message.
9. Flowers For Algernon - Daniel Keyes
Following the story of a mentally disabled man who undergoes revolutionary surgery to increase his IQ after it was successfully trialed on a mouse, this book is taught in schools and colleges across the world. Dissecting human nature in all its flawed truths, it asks us, what truly makes us who we are and how do we treat those who are differently abled to ourselves. It is as tragic as it is moving and a really thought-provoking novel of how we see the world and how the world sees us.
10. Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Although most of the action takes place during WWII where the protagonist is captured as a POW in Dresden, the novel takes you through significant moments in his life via time travel as he is later used as an exhibition piece in an alien zoo. Predominantly an anti-war piece, it also reflects on the very nature of humanity and what all of it means at the end of a life. Is there any point and will humanity ever learn from its mistakes? Dark, comic and dry, it is a satirical look at the world that was, is and, most probably, will be.
11. The Day of The Triffids - John Wyndham
A story that sees the world blinded by lunar events whilst, at the same time, a strain of flesh-eating plants are loosed on the world making it a dark and dismal affair and a dangerous time to live in. Frantic and frenetically paced, it is an action-packed thriller that has inspired and influenced pop-culture for generations from further literature to film and television.
12. The War of The Worlds - H.G. Wells
One of the first novels about alien invasion, this is arguably the most influential sci-fi piece ever created as it tells of aliens coming to Earth in order to wipe out humanity. It has inspired countless films, TV shows, plays, radio dramas and other mediums but perhaps more impressive is that it inspired science itself as Robert Goddard claimed he was inspired to invent both the liquid-fuelled rocket and the multistage rocket after reading this novel. As such, this book led to mankind landing on the moon.
13. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
A tale of an American government, thrown into a war and now run by a dictatorship which oppresses women. Telling of how the majority of women have become infertile due to some unspecified effect of the war, those who can reproduce are highly prized but in effect slaves. It tells of how women's bodies are controlled by a patriarchal society and how they feel liberated when they take it back, it is, sadly, as poignant as ever and is a striking, feminist work of brilliance.
14. Behold The Man - Michael Moorcock
A time traveler returns to 28AD in order to meet Jesus only to find he is not what he seems and so assumes the role himself in order to create the history that he was taught. A stark take town of religious fanaticism as well as an existentialist poke at how we see the world and believe what we are told as well as questioning how far we will go to maintain our own world views. It is only 144 pages long but crams in so much more than other novels.
15. Earth Abides - George R. Stewart
The Earth's population has been decimated by a deadly disease and only a few survivors remain. A relatively common theme now but considering this was written in 1940 it was a revelation at the time and asked how humanity would carry on and does it have the will power to survive as a species should the very worst happen? It also questions population size and controls as well as addressing environmental concerns and replenishing the Earth.
16. A Scanner Darky - Phillip K. Dick
A narrative that follows an undercover agent spying on a community of drug users and sellers who he himself then becomes addicted to a new psychoactive drug. A semi-autobiographical piece, it uses futuristic settings to tell of the failings of American drug policy, how drug culture acts as a foster community and how and why people get hung up on addictions. Raw and abrasive at times it is honest storytelling at its best.
17. The Lathe of Heaven - Ursula K. Le Guin
Following a man who's dreams can alter reality, he starts to take drugs in order to prevent him from dreaming at all but soon he must undergo rehabilitation. When his psychiatrist learns of his abilities he starts to manipulate his dreams to his own ends. Asking philosophical questions about the desire to control's one's destiny as well as taking a look at the impact of technology on humanity, the book is critical of certain philosophical approaches as well as eugenics.