Even with all the advances in film and television, the most interesting and imaginative science fiction and fantasy work continues to be published in books. Before Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games ever appeared on other media, they were first published in book form, by George R.R. Martin and Suzanne Collins, respectively. And this is the way it has always been. From Jules Verne’s 20,000 League’s Under The Sea to George Orwell’s 1984, books have always led the way when it comes to the science fiction and fantasy genres. And while many sci-fi and fantasy books are considered classics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, many other books have received far less fanfare, but have nevertheless helped to shape modern science fiction and fantasy. Here are some books that helped to change the science fiction and fantasy genres forever.
10. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
While another one of his books, Fahrenheit 451, was more popular and acclaimed, author Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles has proven to be his most influential work. A collection of inter-related short stories which was first published in 1950, the book is about the human race’s struggle to flee from the potential of nuclear war on Earth and seek refuge on Mars. Critics initially dismissed Bradbury’s depiction of Mars as too far-fetched and fantastical. However, explorations of Mars in recent years have proven that the writer’s vision of the Red Planet was largely correct. Many of Ray Bradbury’s ideas from The Martian Chronicles are actually discussed today by scientists, including at NASA itself. In fact, NASA placed a copy of the novel in the Phoenix Martian Rover that it sent to Mars in 2008.
9. The Dark Tower Series, Stephen King
With The Dark Tower series, Stephen King set the benchmark for an episodic fantasy book series featuring recurring characters. Without The Dark Tower, it’s possible that there would be no Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Divergent series of books and movies. Lead character Roland Deschain is the last gunslinger on the planet Mid-World, and pursues the evil Man in Black across a post-apocalyptic landscape towards the mythical and magical Dark Tower. This book series also infuses myths involving the wild west and cowboys with modern day post-apocalyptic images. It’s something people today see increasingly in science fiction and fantasy, but when Stephen King published the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, back in 1982, nobody was mashing genres together in this way. To date, there have been eight books in The Dark Tower series, the most recent being The Wind Through The Key Hole, which was published in 2012. More recently, the series has gone into movie production, with Idris Elba playing the Gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey taking the role of the Man in Black.
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
Self-aware technology and robots with feelings are pretty standard in science fiction today. But when Philip K. Dick published his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968, he was in unfamiliar territory. A short novel about a bounty hunter in post-apocalyptic San Francisco who has to hunt down six advanced androids, the book inspired the classic 1982 film Blade Runner. Within the book itself, Dick explored issues such as what it means to be human, emotions and memories, and family history. This was all considered complex and groundbreaking material for science fiction back in 1968, but it shaped the genre going forward and showed authors that science fiction didn’t have to be one dimensional, and that the themes of science fiction can be much deeper than they had been previously.
7. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Unlike more common types of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness is not concerned with technology and robotics so much as it is concerned with gender, linguistics, psychology and racial politics. The book, published in 1969, is about Genly Ai, a man sent to talk the inhabitants of the planet Gethen into joining the interstellar civilization he represents. The fact that the Gethenians are genderless is the book’s most famous aspect. This unique feature led many people to hail this novel as a milestone in feminist literature and an advancement in the feminist cause. However, it is the story that is so richly drawn which has made this book a standout and led to its enduring popularity. In 1970, The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards as the year’s best novel, and this highly successful work continues to be studied today.
6. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
Written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, Solaris is a major work of science fiction and fantasy that has been hugely influential. The subject of not one, but two movies (the most recent version starring George Clooney), the novel is about the failed attempts of humans to communicate with the extraterrestrial life on a far-distant planet. Deeper and richer than it appears on the surface, Solaris also explores subjects such as human memory, experience and the difficulties people have communicating with one another. A truly intellectual work, Solaris has been said to elevate science fiction and fantasy writing to the level of the Russian masters such as Tolstoy and Pushkin. It is a deep and complex novel that demonstrates the lengths at which sci-fi can be used to explore the human condition, and is a must-read.
5. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Published in 1961, the novel Stranger in a Strange Land was the first work of science fiction to rank on the New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list, selling 100,000 copies in hardcover and over five million in paperback editions. The novel is about a human man named Valentine Michael Smith who comes to Earth as an adult after being born on Mars and raised by Martians, and focuses on human interactions and terrestrial cultures. Often called “the most famous science fiction novel ever written,” Stranger in a Strange Land was wildly popular in its day and has proven to be highly influential. To date, there have been 28 different editions of the book, abd in addition, it won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Novel. In 2012, the U.S. Library of Congress named it one of 88 “Books that Shaped America”.
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
What is left to say about this quirky novel from British author Douglas Adams? A unique book in every sense of the phrase, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the very first science fiction comedy novel. Actually, it is often referred to as a multimedia phenomenon, as it was initially a radio drama on the BBC before it was turned into a book. The first printing of the novel sold 250,000 copies in its first three months, making it an instant hit. The Guardian newspaper named it one of the 1,000 novels which everyone must read, and a BBC poll ranked it fourth, out of 200 books, in its Big Read poll a few years ago. The book is about the trials and tribulations of Arthur Dent, the lone survivor of a destroyed Earth, as he travels across the universe, and fuses science fiction with humor to help to take the genre in a new mirthful direction. It is easy to trace the lineage of later science fictions books, with their hip and irreverent tone, back to this influential and much-loved novel.
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
We’re talking about the book here, not the disastrous 1984 movie made by director David Lynch. The book, about noble houses battling for control of each others’ planets, set a new standard for what is considered “epic” in science fiction. Dune proved to be truly groundbreaking when published in 1965, as most critics said that it matched the scale, scope and ambition of The Lord of the Rings, and claim that it had a huge influence on all science fiction and fantasy that came after it, especially those with cyberpunk to environmental themes.
Dune was the winner of the prestigious Hugo Award for best science fiction book in 1966, and also won the very first Nebula award for the best science fiction writing in the United States. Nearly every science fiction and fantasy writer today cites Dune as an influence on them and their work.
2. Neuromancer, William Gibson
The novel Neuromancer by William Gibson is credited with putting forth the idea of the Internet, and for that alone it deserves to be on this list. This book has so far sold nearly seven million copies worldwide after being published in 1984. In fact, many pop culture critics claim it was this book that inspired computer nerds in Silicon Valley to actually build the Internet of today. Considered a watershed moment in cyberpunk, Neuromancer has coined many popular terms that we use today, including “cyberspace,” the concept of a digital “matrix”, and “the World Wide Web.” The book, about a washed-up computer hacker who is hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate computer hack, was the first novel to win all three of the major science-fiction writing awards —- the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick Award. In addition, the Encyclopedia of New Media called the book “more important than Jack Kerouac’s On the Road” in terms of its cultural influence. Every science fiction and fantasy work produced since 1984 owes a debt to Neuromancer, from Wired magazine to The X-Files.
1. War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
This is a pretty simple story that continues to resonate today. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is about an alien invasion of Earth and the devastation that is caused. You could consider it the earliest version of the movie Independence Day if you want. However, if you also remember that the book was published in 1898, you begin to see exactly how influential this book has been over the decades. The War of the Worlds has been translated into countless languages, adapted into comic books, radio, film, stage, and even video games. More importantly, it has inspired a wide range of alien invasion tales in every medium of science fiction and fantasy, and it cemented our collective feelings of aliens and Martians as being threatening to human life on Earth. Few ideas have captured the imagination of so many people all over the world in the last century quite like this story, and the book literally gave birth to the alien horror genre that we enjoy to this day. It is a fitting tribute to author H.G. Wells that his story of alien conquest was not only the first of its kind, but remains one of the very best examples of this type of science fiction. Every science fiction tale written after 1898 (which would be almost all of them) owes a debt of gratitude to this landmark novel.