the science fiction canon
(Edit, 2022: yikes, let’s add Le Guin, Butler, Jemisin, etc – this probably needs a total rewrite, but we’ll caveat it for now)
My sister asked me to make a list of Important Sci-Fi for her boyfriend to read. I came up with the following. This, I think, says a lot about me. In no particular order:
Robert Heinlein: Starship Troopers, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Double Star, Stranger In A Strange Land
– Admiral Bob is…Admiral Bob. The most fun of the Big Three, and the only one who could actually write a story that was a story.
Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous With Rama, Childhood’s End
– Art Clarke was gay, helped invent radar, and lived in luxury in Sri Lanka for most of his life, after Becoming Famous. Also wrote 2001, which is not even close to his best book…which is Rendezvous With Rama, which is also the best pure/hard sci-fi book ever written.
Isaac Asimov: I, Robot, Foundation, The Gods Themselves
– Dr. Asimov was a much more boring version of Arthur C. Clarke, but he wrote like a large man (which he was) falling off a log.
Frank Herbert: Dune
– Sci-fi’s Grande Novel, like The Lord Of The Rings, but in fewer books. Famous for being filmed very, very badly, but it’s a hell of a thing, really. Not many authors sum up all of their talents and interests so well in a single volume.
William Gibson: Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country
– Out of all the learned and wise men on this list, Gibson, who “knows nothing about computers”, may have pin-pointed our future the best. Also turns an exceptional phrase – maybe the second best writer on the list.
Neil Stephenson: Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon
– Gibson is the king of cyberpunk…but Neil Stephenson is his post-modern prophet.
Jules Verne: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, Around The World In 80 Days
– Verne basically thought Science was great…
H.G. Wells: The War Of The Worlds, The Time Machine
– Wells was little iffier on the whole idea of Science…
Edgar Rice Burroughs: A Princess Of Mars
– And Burroughs just used SCIENCE TO PUT MEN ON MARS AND HAVE MAD PULP ADVENTURES WITH BEAUTIFUL RED-SKINNED WARRIOR PRINCESSES. Take your pick.
Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination, Virtual Unrealities
– But then Alfred Bester, of course, actually wrote pulp that stands up under the weight of what is becoming a century of time pretty damn quick.
Ray Brabbury: Farenheit 451, The Martin Chronicles, I Sing The Body Electric!
– The best pure writer on the list, by far…but Farenheit 451 is also one of the most vital books on the list.
Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Oranage
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
George Orwell – 1984
– On the subject of writers, science fiction becomes literature awfully quickly…as witness these three dystopian classics.
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle
– And no one writes a dystopia like Phil Dick, of course. The man could have made Jesus feel bad about human nature.
John Brunner: Stand On Zanzibar
– Brunner is another product of the…fourth? wave of sci-fi, I guess, before it became a caricature of itself. Like Dick, he doesn’t have happy things to say about the rising tide of humanity
Spider Robinson: Stardance
– Spider, on the other hand, does: Spider loves everyone, has boundless faith in his species, and it shows in his writing. A nice switch, at least.
Walter Miller: A Canticle For Leibowitz
Brian Aldiss: Greybeard
– Two divergent views of post-apocalyptic earth: one bombastic, one just depressing.
Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game
– A novel about children being trained to defend earth from an alien invasion is, let’s face it, a helluva MacGuffin. Luck for Card, he wrote one hell of a story about it.
Iain M. Banks: Excession, Inversions
Charles Stross: Accellerando, Halting State
– Science fiction writen by people who are still alive and interesting! Stross sparkles, is quasi-cyberpunk, and flits from idea to idea like a moth between flames. Banks writes boundlessly imagiative novels that look like space opera, but are not.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
– Really just British comedy with sci-fi trappings, but fun as all get out.
Roger Zelazny: Four For Tomorrow, Lord Of Light, This Immortal
– Zelazny is an enigma, but a brilliant one: keep an eye out for what he doesn’t tell you.
Dan Simmons: Hyperion, The Fall Of Hyperion
The best space opera ever written? Probably.
Fred Pohl: Gateway
Joe Haldeman: The Forever War
– Two more from the post-utopian era, about time-dilation and mysterious asteroids…and actually about people and their myriad flaws.
Harry Harrison – West Of Eden, Make Room Make Room!, The Stainless Steel Rat
Someone who never forgot his pulp roots: Dinosaurs, legendary thieves, and crushing overpopulation (with Charlton Heston! Yes!)