I should say, any list of favourite sci-fi books is a work in progress for me. Like all writers, I’m constantly reading and re-reading. If I’m not reading a physical copy of something, I’m listening to a Radio 4 adaptation or book read aloud. It strikes me that it is sci-fi’s “age” and there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of new books and new writers emerging all the time. But here are some stories that I find inspiring.
Short stories (and flash fiction) particularly lend themselves to science fiction and speculative fiction, perhaps because, essay-length writing is a good size to explore an idea and sci-fi is mostly idea-led. I’ve selected a few of my favourites here, stories that span the twentieth century.
The Machine Stops, which is freely available on the web, was written rather incongruously by E.M.Forster, in 1909. Forster is better known for Realist British social commentary, books like A Passage to India, Howards’s End and romantic dramas like A Room with a View. Yet this 12,300 story is classic futurist dystopia and even now it has a considerable emotional impact and remarkably prescient. The context for the incongruity is that Forster had read and is responding to HG Well’s 1895 novel The Time Machine. For Wells, the future dystopian situation is created by people oppressing each other. As with War of the Worlds, the subtext to Well’s story is colonialism. Forster’s anxiety is focused on technology and increasing human reliance on it. It describes a world where people, “swaddled lump[s] of flesh”, live isolated from each other connected only by something remarkably like video conferencing and the internet. Their lives are entirely controlled by, the “machine”, something like a supercomputer. The machine that provides everything for its highly dependent humans has achieved godlike status. When it breaks they are physically and mentally helpless.
Isaac Asimov‘s collection of short stories I, Robot (1940-1950) are possibly some of the most influential short stories ever written, not least for including the Three Laws of Robotics. I actually like them a lot more than the Foundation trilogy, possibly because I love robots so much, but I also think they are (perhaps ironically) more human stories. For instance, the exploration, in Robbie of how a child might form a meaningful emotional relationship with a robot is incredibly touching and also highly believable. Asimov foresaw how humans are likely to transfer their empathy for living things to machines that have human characteristics. It also deals with the now much touched upon the problem of what to do about robots developing personality, emotions and attachments to humans.
The Diary of the Rose (1976) by Ursula Le Guin, was first published in 1976, in Future Power and now available as part of the short story collection, The Compass Rose. It is an intense dystopian vision of a time when our memories and thoughts can be probed and invaded by others for the purposes of political control. Rosa Sobel is a psychotherapist who keeps a diary of the treatment of a new patient on whom she uses a psychoscope, a machine that can translate brain activity into images. I love Le Guin’s novels, too, but this story has intense emotional stickiness with me and increasing political relevance in our own time.
Science fiction is not written in a historical vacuum and in writing this list it particularly struck me how each of these works is really a commentary on the time they were written in. There is a lot of debate about when science fiction “began”. Some people say it started in the eighteenth century with the birth of the Enlightenment and give Gulliver’s Travels as an example. Gulliver’s Travels is one of my favourite books but it doesn’t strike me to be a work of science fiction (more fantasy or magical realism). I will park the “what is science fiction” for another missive, I think. Just to say that in the 2nd Century Assyrian Lucian of Samosata wrote True Fictions a story about travelling to outer space and alien life. and 17th-century mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler’s wrote a story called Somnium about a trip to the moon. It strikes me that humans have been looking at the stars and wondering for many thousands of years and very likely making up stories about what might be ‘out there’. I’ll begin with one of my favourite novels and run through the rest in chronological order.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
The story of the creation of Frankenstein and the life of Mary Shelley is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. Daughter of the extraordinary eighteenth-century philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Frankenstein was born out of a ruined holiday on Lake Geneva. She was 18 during the Year Without a Summer, 1816, the year after Mount Tambora erupted and spread climate chaos and famine across the world, the worst famine in 19th century Europe, leading to the displacement of people and civil disorder. Shelley was on holiday, confined to a house on the lake by bad weather with her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and Byron’s doctor, John William Polidori. The four competed with each other to write the most frightening horror stories to ease the boredom of being trapped indoors by constant rain and thunder storms. Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein and Polidori ended up creating The Vampyre and thus two modern archetypes of horror were born. But whereas Polidori’s story drew on folk tales and pure fantasy, Mary Shelley’s story was inspired by (at the time) cutting edge experiments involving electricity and the very real horror of bodies being stolen for scientific use. Frankenstein remains one of my favourite novels, still highly readable, in spite of its age (it was published in 1818), prescient and imaginatively powerful enough to inspire generations and countless film, dramatic and comic book interpretations. It combines the gothic with a fear of and fascination with new technology and the frontiers of science. What stays with me is Mary Shelley’s compassion for the monster, this thing created from reanimated dead body parts, something that doesn’t always come across in contemporary interpretations. I love the chase across the Arctic ice.
H G Wells, War of the Worlds
As with Frankenstein, when a story is so copied, when it spawns a sub-genre (in this case really an industry), it is easy to forget how ground breaking it once was. First, in print in 1897, this is not strictly the first alien invasion story, but in the form that we commonly understand them, this is the book that spawned a thousand comic books and movies. HG Wells was a close friend of Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness and there are ladles of subtexts concerning colonialism and the unsettling sense of anxiety of the coming end of the century. As with all Wells’s novels, you can read a lot into them, or you can take them at face value as highly superior yarns.
Brave New World (1931) Aldous Huxley and 1984, George Orwell (1944) are dystopias minted from the rise of the Soviet super state and the social disruption of the thirties and WWII. Huxley wrote Brave New World as a parody of HG Wells more optimistic vision of the future. Orwell’s novel has become the knee-jerk reference text for anyone talking against big government and predicted the surveillance state, but in many ways, Huxley’s vision of a world where people are drowning in information and too preoccupied in trivia to react well to tyranny has turned out to be frighteningly more prescient.
On the Beach (1957), Fahrenheit 451 (1953) , Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955) Another set of dystopias (well what do you expect from me?!) bedded firmly in their historical context, with anxiety about nuclear war and McCarthyism. I borrowed the robot dog that chases Mathew Erlang shamelessly from Fahrenheit 451. It is a humane and important book that was banned (like Brave New World). A Canticle for Leibowitz and On the Beach are often compared, with Miller’s novel having the weightier literary reputation. I love the first part of the former (I wish he’d stopped there) for its knowing portrayal of future humans searching for meaning in ancient shopping lists, but I prefer and can’t shake Shute’s more humane portrayal of the quiet dignity of people waiting for death to reach them from across the sea. InThe Chrysalids another post-apocalyptic world is tightly controlled by fear and religious orthodoxy. Telepathy between David and his friends is a good metaphor for the dangerous but profound connectedness of those on the wrong side of religious fundamentalism and ignorance.
Solaris (1961) by Stanisław Lem and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in 1961 and space flight captured the world’s imagination. In these novels, space is also a metaphor for the mind. Solaris is a compulsive and deeply unsettling story about scientist’s thwarted attempt to understand an alien civilisation, only to have themselves studied and their own deepest psychological trauma laid bare to them. 2001 the novel, was written by the wonderful prophet of science, Arthur C Clarke after he wrote the screenplay for the film. It shares something of the atmosphere of risk and personal introspection of Solaris, whilst also having a mentally unstable and homicidal AI called HAL and one of the best lines in all of fiction: “…oh my God! — it’s full of stars!”
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
I’m not sure if Dune was the first book to merge mysticism, psychokinesis, distance desert worlds, mind altering substances and space opera, but it’s certainly the most memorable. It’s clearly a book from the 60s. Despite all of this, it’s a book inspired by desert landscapes and ecology and the vivid imaginings of a haunting desert planet is what ultimately sticks in the mind. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer”. Hard to resist.
Philip K Dick, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Talking of mind-altering substances, I’m a big fan of Philip K Dick. The inspiration for Blade Runner a film I first saw when I was far too young, immediately fell in love with and still love. But I prefer the book. Dick’s lead characters are broken unheroic men (e.g. not Harrison Ford) and much more engaging for being so. In Dick’s novel, following World War Terminus, live animals are so rare owning them has become a status symbol. Rick Deckard is hunting androids to pay for a live sheep to replace his electric one to give meaning to his life. Clearly, this far better storyline was too much for Hollywood.
Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (1976)
Utopias are really hard to do. There is no consensus on what a better world would be like. Many baulk at immortality, pastoral idealism, improvements to reproduction, and equality, so you may or may not find Marge Piercy’s utopia appealing. What she does do is fix this future utopia (and it’s potential opposite) in a bed of hard-bitten working class American context and then create an unforgettably compelling heroine in Consuelo Ramos.
Octavia E Butler, Kindred (1979)
This extraordinary time travel novel has Butler’s African American hero, Dana, sucked back in time from the 70s, to Maryland before the American Civil War. Living the life of a slave through Dana’s modern eyes is a horrific and unforgettable experience and one of the best uses of the time travel device I’ve come across. If the ultimate power of fiction is the transformative ability to let you walk in someone else’s shoes, then this is one of the most powerful novels I have read because I finished it angry. It is also one of those books I started to read and knew I’d found a new friend. It reads like a contemporary novel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Famous for coining the term cyberspace, before the birth of the worldwide web, this groundbreaking cyberpunk novel makes you feel cool just by association. The noir feel, the street language, the underworld settings and the fantasy high tech create a heady atmosphere that is almost narcotic in itself.
Oryx and Crake (2003), Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood doesn’t really like the term sci-fi, but I can’t see any discernible difference between her MaddAddam series and other dystopian fiction I’ve read. She’d done dystopian before, most notably and brilliantly with The Handmaid’s Tale, but this story of a psychologically damaged bioengineer who creates what he believes to be a better version of humanity and destroys the old version to make way for it is my favourite of her novels.
Iain M Banks, Use of Weapons (1990), Surface Detail (2010)
Iain M Banks’s semi-utopian space opera Culture novels are monumental in vision, fundamentally humane and are populated with free thinking minds that inhabit spaceships and chose ridiculous names like No More Mr Nice Guy or Of Course, I Still Love You. I’ll call out two books from the series: Use of Weapons because it made me drop the book I was reading in shock during the denouement and Surface Detail. This is a mind-melt of a book about a virtual war fought over the right to create artificial hells to torture the mind states of the dead. Pavulean Hell is a literary version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it out of my head.
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (2013)
A student of Octavia Butler, Ann Leckie has taken monumental space opera with Banks-like Mind-occupied space ships and created something new and very exciting. Breq is the only surviving fragment of the mind of Justice of Toren trapped in the body of an ancillary, the body of a human captured in war, now operated by Breq. At the beginning of the novel, Breq is the reluctant saviour of the self-destructive Seivarden. Together they begin to unpick the reason for the destruction of the Justice of Toren. It is a masterfully written, satisfyingly complex, brilliantly imagined space opera adventure story that has a sequel and hopefully will spawn a long series.