A Sci-Fi Top 10
Major Scifi Authors
There are, of course, zillions of sci-fi books out there: how on Earth can you choose between them? If you are new to science-fiction, where would be a good place to start? And isn’t sci-fi rubbish anyway?
Well, OK, there is rubbish out there too... and depending on your tastes, your ‘rubbish’ could be my favorite! But if conventional novels are your style, perhaps consider that while the best conventional novels focus on human behavior at the individual and family level, the best sci-fi tends to look at human behavior at the society-wide level instead (or as well). It also tends to be critical of current social trends, one way or another, or at least it may highlight some aspects of society that perhaps we could be thinking about. And at a minimum, good science fiction raises the question of how would people behave, or what would be the right thing to do, in various unusual but perhaps foreseeable circumstances? It can be a way of exploring the ethics of various plausible future scenarios for humanity.
Now, don’t suppose for a minute that Hollywood’s so-called science fiction movies, or most sci-fi TV series for that matter, are proper science-fiction either. In general, they are not. While there are worthy exceptions, for the most part they are just action-adventure films in a sci-fi setting, following an absolutely mundane hero’s journey boy-gets-girl kind of script. While this makes money and can be very entertaining, it generally lacks depth. This is true of a lot of science fiction books too, of course: but like the films, even some of these can be a fun read.
My ‘Top 10’ isn’t really a top ten at all: I’m not counting. It is a list of authors and books to look out for and that I think would make an ideal introduction to sci-fi for the curious. I am excluding the sub-genre of fantasy and sticking mainly to so-called ‘hard’ science fiction: that is, stories based on reasonably realistic scientific speculation, with a minimum of magic and magical thinking.
If you are at all inclined towards the literary novel, the books of Isaac Asimov are among science fiction’s finest classics, in particular his Foundation trilogy and his robot books, I Robot and its sequel, The Rest of the Robots. His stories are entirely family-friendly, and very plainly written, but strongly based on closely observed real human behavior, which is what carries the stories forward rather than action as such.
The Foundation books (Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation) are based in a distant future when humanity’s galactic civilization is on the verge of collapse into a terrible dark age. Psychohistorian Hari Seldon comes up with a scheme to save humanity by forecasting certain political and social crises, and proposing which solution stands the best chance of navigating the stormy waters with civilization still intact. The story starts out comfortably enough, but of course, things don’t go according to plan and halfway through the second book pandemonium breaks loose...
With his robot books, Asimov came up with the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ which define how advanced, intelligent and autonomous machines should (perhaps) be designed: they should not harm humans, for example. The books are a remarkable selection of short stories testing these laws to breaking point, and looking at machine and human interaction. They are particularly interesting in that they were written long before the personal computer became ubiquitous and he correctly forecast many of the problems people would encounter when trying to get these machines to do what we think we’ve told them to do. Perhaps that sounds a little dry, but the stories are entirely readable and enjoyable - and they are utterly unlike the Hollywood movie of the same name, which is, frankly, a travesty.
Anyway, he also wrote further books tying the Foundation and Robot books into the same future history, and other authors have written sequels as well, with permission from Asimov’s estate. His most famous short story, not a part of either series, is ‘Nightfall’ about life on a world with multiple suns, where night never happens - except once every few centuries.
Arthur C Clarke
An ex-RAF technician who spent most of his life living in Sri Lanka, Clarke’s most famous novels are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood’s End, and Rendezvous with Rama. In the case of 2001, it is worth noting that the book and the more famous film were written more-or-less together, as Clarke and Stanley Kubrick collaborated fully. If you find the movie a bit baffling, you may find that the book provides a bit more explanation. Either way, this is one of the few cases in which a major movie is actually pretty close to the book version! He has written three sequels to 2001 as well, so if you like that one, you may want to follow it up.
Childhood’s End is a story about what happens as humanity progresses to a new level of super-mind-power-based evolution, and about Earth’s benign alien rulers who are studying the progression as it happens.
Rendezvous with Rama is a story of what happens when a huge alien spacecraft is discovered approaching the solar system. A ship is sent up from Earth to intercept it, and the crew board the craft. They discover a thriving and fully artificial ecosystem, but the builders of the craft appear to be absent or hidden away somewhere...
One of my favorite books is The Infinitive of Go, possibly the most archetypal parallel universe story of them all. It is about what happens when scientists experiment for the first time with teleporting a human - but he comes out the other end demanding a countersignature and blows up his briefcase of documents and shoots himself when people don’t know what he is on about...
John Brunner wrote many science fiction books, among the most renowned being Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, about overpopulation and the breakdown of society. The former won a Hugo Award and the latter was nominated for a Nebula Award. However, I haven’t read either of those, as it happens, so I can’t tell you about them. I happen like parallel universe stories...
Iain M Banks
Banks has written a series of books known as the ‘Culture’ novels, because they are based in a distant future when humanity has colonized the galaxy and when everything is run by super-intelligent machines. Most people actually live on gigantic intelligent spaceships although many live on various planets as well. This society is a kind of utopia known as the Culture. The stories are well thought out and exciting, and although the future is somewhat utopian, this future is not without warfare and other such difficulties. The first in the series is Consider Phlebas, although The State of the Art could be considered a kind of prequel.
He also writes conventional novels under the name Iain Banks (i.e., without the M), so as you might expect, his stories are not just simple adventures. I would not say it is necessary to read the Culture novels in any particular order: each story is complete in itself, and even his science-fiction stories that are not generally listed as Culture novels are, it seems to me, based in pretty-much the same fictional universe anyway.
I feel I should also mention Feersum Endjinn, a really good story about a future Earth that has lost much of its advanced technology, but at the same time the solar system is heading into a cloud of intergalactic dust which will block the Sun’s light. Before leaving, the ancestors left a ‘fearsome engine’ to deal with this - but nobody knows how to use it. Be aware that the entire book is spelled in the same phonetic style as its title as it is a history written by its main protagonist...
It is worth noting that Banks’ books are not necessarily family-friendly, in that he doesn’t flinch from depicting violence and brutality when it suits the story.
Probably this author is best known for his Revelation Space series of novels, based in a future time when humanity is expanding into the nearby regions of the galaxy. Fermi’s paradox, asking how come we can’t find any trace of intelligent aliens given that there are so many stars out there, turns out to be answered by the existence of a race of beings - or perhaps machines - known as the Inhibitors. These Inhibitors, having vastly advanced technologically, leave traps around for newly advancing sentient beings (who are, after all, potential rivals), and when they encounter them, they exterminate them... The books in this series, at the time of writing, are Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, and The Prefect.
I have also read Century Rain, not part of the Revelation Space series. Century Rain is a very enjoyable twist on the parallel universes and time travel themes, combined with good old-fashioned space opera and even a bit of detective novel. It is set at a time when the Earth has been destroyed by a nanotech (microscopic machinery) holocaust and humanity lives where it can, in space and on Mars. An archaeologist gets the chance to go back in time, sort of - but when she arrives, she finds that the Earth of the past doesn’t quite correspond to the history books - and on top of that, her predecessor has been murdered...
Robert Anton Wilson
One of the most radical writers of all, RAW (as I shall call him) is an extreme libertarian, ex-editor of Playboy (his books can be a bit uninhibited in parts, so parents might like to check them first), conspiracy theorist and general misfit. Above all, he likes to try to force his readers to think! Indeed, he also writes non-fiction, and has stated that all of his works contain at least one lie, the idea being to try to encourage critical thinking, a skill sadly not taught in schools (indeed, rather discouraged as conformity is preferred). A philosopher of sorts, he tries to promote a general agnostic attitude in his readers, not just about the idea of god (or gods), but about everything.
Perhaps his most famous work of fiction is the award-winning The Illuminatus! Trilogy, co-written with Robert Shea. A wide-ranging novel, the authors experimented with styles of writing drawn from James Joyce, William S Burroughs and Ezra Pound. It is hard to summarize exactly what the story is about, actually, because it covers so much ground, but it takes a conspiratorial view of history, and jumbles up a lot of factual information with fiction, true to RAW’s philosophy of “guerrilla ontology.” It is based largely in the 1960’s California counter-culture, with big splashes of occult and illuminati nonsense (or not), so if you like generally crackers intellectualism and novelized philosophizing, you’ll probably like this.
His other big novel was the Schrodinger's’ Cat Trilogy, a science fiction story about, roughly, the differing interpretations of quantum mechanics. Note that the single-volume version, apparently erroneously, omits some sections that are in the three-volume set. The individual volumes are The Universe Next Door, The Trick Top Hat, and The Homing Pigeons and each is set in a different parallel universe.
This author tends to write novels based in a steampunk-cyberpunk anarcho-capitalist parallel-historical kind of setting... They are typically complex, usually long, and involve alternate histories of science, cryptography, cybernetics and computing.
Having said that, his first big success, Snow Crash, involves only some of these elements, as it is both reasonably short and set in the future, in a post-American Century North America where indeed a chaotic and depressing anarcho-capitalism rules the roost. According to Time magazine, Snow Crash is one of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923, so it is not to be sniffed at. Speaking of which, the story is about a mysterious new drug which is spreading rapidly throughout what passes for society, but which turns out to also reprogram people’s brains: it carries a mind-virus, a linguistic code which someone is using for profit...
His next book, Diamond Age, considered by some to be a sort of unofficial sequel to Snow Crash, is set in a post-cyberpunk world dominated by the use of nanotechnology for the production of all mundane items. It is a world in which various cultures dominate rather than nation-states, as the widespread use of encryption made taxation of transactions impossible to enforce, so governments as such are no longer viable, although of course there are powerful people and organizations nevertheless. It is the story of four-year-old little Nell (c.f. Charles Dickens), who is given a dynabook - a sort of super-advanced touchpad or tablet computer, to further her education. She is the daughter of John Hackworth, who has illegally copied the book which was intended for this culture’s leader’s daughter, so he gets into trouble for this and it results in various complex political ramifications in the story. The book has themes including cultural relativism, technology, education and child development, and the failure of artificial intelligence to convincingly pass the Turing test: no matter how advanced, people can still tell the difference.
I don’t want this whole article to be about Neal Stephenson’s books, however, so I’ll summarize the rest briefly! Cryptonomicon is a huge and very readable novel set in both World War 2 and the 1990’s, and looks at code breaking in the early period and the setting up of a proposed data haven to protect freedom of information in the modern era. The Baroque Cycle is a series of novels ranging from three to as many as eight volumes depending on the edition (the content is the same), set around the end of the 17th Century. The first is always called Quicksilver. Characters include Issac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and the themes are, again, cryptology and this time, money. Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle lie somewhere between the conventional historical adventure novel and science fiction, and are likely to be enjoyed by both types of reader.
John Wyndham is an early science-fiction author, famous for The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (seen in film as The Village of the Damned), and The Chrysalids (aka The Rebirth). The Day of the Triffids, published in 1951, is a disaster story, about what happens when almost everyone is blinded by the lights from an unusual meteor shower. Intelligent alien plants from the meteors grow and begin farming the now helpless humans.
In The Midwich Cuckoos, a village is mysteriously cut off for a day by some kind of force field. Subsequently it is discovered that all the women in the village are pregnant and they give birth to strange children having extraordinary mental powers...
The Chrysalids is set in a post-nuclear-holocaust world in which advanced technology is shunned and anyone who shows any mutations is killed or banished.
Justly famous, Orwell is an author who perhaps is not thought of as a science-fiction writer, but the classic Animal Farm (1945), while obviously political satire in its scathing criticism of communism, is also clearly sci-fi. Apart from in children’s books where else would you find talking animals, after all?
Similarly, the justly famous Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is also a kind of science-fiction, set in what was at the time of writing an extremely sinister and not entirely unrealistic future world dictatorship.
A lot of George Orwell’s writing was prophetic, warning about uncomfortable trends occurring in his society at the time. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was about our tendency to worship the god of money, and Coming Up For Air about how over-commercialism was slowly destroying traditional values, again just because of money. Such themes of social criticism are exactly what the best science fiction is about: at its best it is essentially subversive literature.
More-or-less a contemporary of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley wrote his own vision of a possible future for humanity, in Brave New World (1932). In this vision, the populace would be controlled, not by a cruel totalitarian dictatorship, but instead through the use of drugs (‘soma’) and Pavlovian subliminal conditioning (which we now know of as advertising). Arguably, Huxley’s vision of the future was closer than that of Orwell, certainly since the demise of the Soviet Union - indeed, frighteningly so, some might say. In an essay written in 1958, Brave New World Revisited, Huxley said that he thought that the world was heading in the direction he had forecast, but even faster than he expected.
He also wrote Ape and Essence in 1949, set 100 years after a nuclear holocaust, in a world run by warlike semi-intelligent baboons - satirizing the way the world is run then and now, of course.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Born in 1875, ERB began writing his Barsoom (Mars) series of pulp-fiction style sci-fi books with A Princess of Mars in 1912. Aimed initially at cheap magazine publication, along with his Pellucidar series starting with At the Earth’s Core and his more famous Tarzan books, he made a good living from them in the end. He also wrote a series five of adventures set on Venus, starting with Pirates of Venus in 1934. He is also known for The Land That Time Forgot about an isolated country where dinosaurs still live.
Whilst none of these books can be said to hit the literary heights, they are all rip-roaring adventures and, even after all this time, a good read. Younger readers especially might like them. The recent film, John Carter, is fairly faithful to the spirit of the Barsoom books, even if it turned out to have been not so popular with modern audiences. Really, the film should have been made 50 years ago - most of ERB’s ideas have already been stolen by the movie industry, making this film seem rather unoriginal today. In fact, of course, his stories were highly innovative in their time.
David Brin is most well-known for his Uplift series and for The Postman, made into a film starring Kevin Costner, about how society could be rebuilt after a holocaust, using ideas from networking: that is, start a postal service! To my mind, it is one of the most important books ever written: in the event of a disastrous collapse of some sort, we will need this very idea if civilization is to be rebuilt with the minimum of pain. A postal service would serve to bring people together into a single community again.
The Uplift series starts with Sundiver, and is set in a universe in which advanced species enhance the evolution and development of other species, getting them up to star-faring capability, in return for service from those ‘client’ species for 100,000 years or so. Humanity, however, has no patron, having apparently uplifted themselves, and this rather puts the cat among the pigeons... Brin has also written one of many sequels to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.
A number of other authors deserve an honorable mention, I suppose: Ursula K Le Guin (The Lathe of Heaven has been made into a movie more than once); Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy, about the human colonization of Mars, and The Years of Rice and Salt - a really excellent yarn about a parallel Earth in which most of Europe was wiped out by the plague in the first millennium, leaving China to dominate the world, and most interestingly involving the afterlife and reincarnation as well); Ray Bradbury (a bit too literary for my tastes: I find his books rather dull but many like them - Fahrenheit 451 is justly famous though, about a dictatorship that burns books - all books); Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, about a Jesus-like human who has been educated by aliens, and humanity’s reaction to him. I have read many of his books but have repeatedly found them to be a too simple-minded for my tastes, but again, his books are very popular. Some are aimed specifically at younger readers).
Well, I hope this not-so-brief as I had intended summary of the best of science-fiction, from my point of view of course, will give you some useful pointers. Good reading!