21 Groundbreaking Science Fiction Novels

Sometimes a book comes along, and science fiction is changed forever afterwards. Here are some of those books.

 

21
Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany – 1974

This Nebula Award Finalist book is roundly hated by some and loved by others. William Gibson called the book “a riddle never to be solved,” while Philip K. Dick called it “the worst trash I’ve ever read,” and Harlan Ellison said, “I must be honest. I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further.” However, other writers have called it “a dense, transgressive, hallucinatory, Joycean tour-de-force.”

A young half-Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there…

In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged. Into this desperate metropolis steps the Kid, his fist wrapped in razor-sharp knives, to write, to love, to wound.

“Though pushing 30, Dhalgren features themes of racial identity, religious faith, and self-awareness revealed in a multilayered plot that will be right at home with today’s audiences.”
—Library Journal

20
Dangerous Visions
edited by Harlan Ellison – 1967

The Dangerous Visions short story collections helped launch the careers of almost every major author of the New Wave. The first volume included Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and J.G. Ballard. Author Michael Moorcock wrote of Ellison’s collections:

“He changed our world forever. And ironically, it is usually the mark of a world so fundamentally altered—be it by Stokely Carmichael or Martin Luther King Jr. or Lyndon Johnson, or Kate Millet—that nobody remembers what it was like before things got better. That’s the real measure of Ellison’s success.”

19
Dawn
by Octavia E. Butler – 1987

Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war.

Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth.

Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before. The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations—whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

18
The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman – 1974

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, this book, along with Starship Troopers, took a more realistic look at what a futuristic military would look like.

Conscripted into service for the United Nations Exploratory Force, a highly trained unit built for revenge, physics student William Mandella fights for his planet light years away against the alien force known as the Taurans.

Because of the relative passage of time when one travels at incredibly high speed, the Earth that Mandella returns to after his two-year experience has progressed decades and is foreign to him in disturbing ways.

Based in part on the author’s experiences in Vietnam, The Forever War is regarded as one of the greatest military science fiction novels ever written, capturing the alienation that servicemen and women experience even now upon returning home from battle.

17
The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi – 2009

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.

There, he encounters Emiko… Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?

“A captivating look at a dystopic future that seems all too possible. East meets West in a clash of cultures brilliantly portrayed in razor-sharp images, tension-building pacing, and sharply etched characters.”
—Library Journal (starred review)

16
The Three-Body Problem
by Cixin Liu – 2008

I strongly recommend this entire trilogy (The Dark Forest, Death’s End).

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

15
Ringworld
by Larry Niven – 1970

Ringworld is considered a science fiction classic, and it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards while spawning three sequels and four prequels.

An expedition’s goal is to explore a ringworld: an artificial ring about one million miles wide and approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit (which makes it about 600 million miles in circumference), encircling a sun-like star. It rotates, providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s gravity through the action of centrifugal force. The ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets.

The explorers crash on the ringworld and make some surprising discoveries.

14
Childhood’s End
by Arthur C. Clarke – 1953

Childhood’s End is considered Arthur C. Clarke’s greatest work, and heavily influenced science fiction for year to come. It is considered better than 2001, better than Rendezvous With Rama, better then The Songs of Distant Earth.

I was excited to finally read it.

It was, you know, fine.

Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe it’s really hard for a science fiction book written in 1953 to have much of a punch in 2020. Some of it was interesting, some of it a little silly.

Aliens arrive in giant silver ships and hover over every major city on Earth. They offer the end of ignorance, disease, and poverty, but mankind has to allow itself to be ruled. After several decades, some people begin to chafe at their benevolent overlords.

13
The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin – 1969

Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships).

When I first read this book, the androgyny felt entirely alien, since our language had “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.” However, the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun has increased in recent years. It’s interesting how language evolves.

“A jewel of a story.”
—Frank Herbert

12
Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein – 1961

Heinlein got the idea for this novel when he and his wife Virginia were brainstorming one evening in 1948. She suggested a new version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), but with a child raised by Martians instead of wolves. He decided to go further with the idea and worked on the story on and off for more than a decade.

Mars is just part of the backstory to this book—the reader never travels there.

Despite mixed reviews, Stranger in a Strange Land won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel and became the first science fiction novel on The New York Times Book Review’s best-seller list.

11
War of the Worlds
by H.G. Wells – 1898

The granddaddy of alien invasion stories, The War of the Worlds was classified as “scientific romance,” as was Wells’s earlier book, The Time Machine.

Wells appears to have enjoyed the idea of obliterating his neighborhood. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking—killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways—then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”

To modern eyes, the events in this book may not seem particularly horrific.

10
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne – 1870

While his description of this new thing called a “submarine” is fun even for modern readers, it’s the brilliant but tortured Captain Nemo who steals the show.

9
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams – 1979

This is one of the funniest books written in the English language. It begins with the destruction of Earth, and things go downhill from there.

Do not read this book around other people, because you will annoy them by laughing so much.

8
Neuromancer
by William Gibson – 1984

The book that defined an entire genre (cyberpunk). And Gibson almost didn’t get it published because he was afraid it was too similar to the movie Blade Runner.

Case was the sharpest data-thief in the matrix—until he crossed the wrong people and they crippled his nervous system, banishing him from cyberspace. Now a mysterious new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run at an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, a mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case is ready for the adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

“A revolutionary novel.”
—Publishers Weekly

7
Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson – 1992

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s Cosa Nostra Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse.

“Brilliantly realized… Stephenson turns out to be an engaging guide to an onrushing tomorrow.”
—The New York Times Book Review

6
The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury – 1950

When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.

Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.

5
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
by Philip K. Dick – 1968

The inspiration for Blade Runner.

By 2021, the World War has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remain covet any living creature, and for people who can’t afford one, companies build incredibly realistic simulacra: horses, birds, cats, sheep. They’ve even built humans. Immigrants to Mars receive androids so sophisticated they are indistinguishable from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans can wreak, the government bans them from Earth. Driven into hiding, unauthorized androids live among human beings, undetected. Rick Deckard, an officially sanctioned bounty hunter, is commissioned to find rogue androids and “retire” them. But when cornered, androids fight back—with lethal force.

“A kind of pulp-fiction Kafka, a prophet.”
—The New York Times

4
Slaughterhouse-Five
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – 1969

This American classic is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

“Very tough and very funny… sad and delightful… very Vonnegut.”
—The New York Times

3
Foundation
by Isaac Asimov – 1951

Psychohistory is one of Asimov’s best inventions: using a combination of history, psychology, and statistics, one can accurately predict the behavior of large groups of people.

Foundation is arguably the first time a believable galactic empire was created in print. Unfortunately, Asimov’s characters tend be one-dimensional, but his stories are so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive that lapse.

2
1984
by George Orwell – 1949

Ideas from science fiction rarely make it into the public consciousness, but 1984 has been referenced in Supreme Court cases, and “Big Brother” has a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1984 is the rare book that is both commonly assigned to students and still a pleasure to read.

1
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley – 1932

Children are genetically programmed in the womb and sent through indoctrination programs, preparing them for lives in predetermined castes. It’s a utopian society that maintains its peace by removing the humanity of its members, and only one man is brave enough to vocally challenge the status quo.

Both Brave New World and 1984 saw dystopian futures, but Huxley seems to have gotten much of it right (though Orwell did nail the surveillance state). According to social critic Neil Postman:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.