One of the greatest things about science fiction books is that they force you to think. More often than not they push past the boundaries of reality and give interesting insights into some of the humanity’s oldest and most prominent philosophical questions. Existence, society, leadership, war, technology — these are some of the main themes found in many science fiction works but so many people seem to be instilled with the notion that science fiction is nothing more than fantastic stories about robots and aliens. Luckily, some of the best science fiction literature is still getting passed around college and university classes. So, if you’re an English major who has yet have their mind blown by a great sci-fi story, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for some these titles on you class reading lists.
Neuromancer is the archetypal “cyberpunk” story written by William Gibson. The novel tells the story of a washed-up computer hacker who is contracted by an enigmatic employer to pull off the ultimate hacking heist. The narrative seems to allude to the inevitability of post-humanity as the line between artificial intelligence and humanity in the book has become nearly impossible to distinguish.
Since its release in 1984, Neuromancer has been immensely influential in both science fiction literature and cinema. The 1999 movie The Matrix is a prime example that draws heavily from ideas conceived in the book. After a screening of the film, Gibson himself was impressed and noted that the way that the Wachowski’s had drawn from existing cyberpunk works was “exactly the kind of creative cultural osmosis” he had relied upon in his own writing. If consider yourself a fan of cyberpunk, even in the most remote sense, Neuromancer is an absolute must read.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale
A work of speculative fiction from Canadian author Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that presents a disturbing near-future scenario in which a totalitarian Christina theocracy has overthrown the United States government. Most of the human population has been rendered infertile due to environmental elements and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The very few women who are still able to reproduce have been subjugated and forced to become “handmaids” who serve powerful men and birth their children.
The book explores themes of women in servitude and the different ways in which they gain agency. It’s an incredibly ambitious novel that remains very relevant to this day — which is why it’s commonly found on a number of university and college syllabi including English literature, political science, religious studies, and even some women’s studies classes.
5. Slaughterhouse Five
Slaughterhouse Five is a satirical novel about World War II from author Kurt Vonnegut. It follows the life of a soldier named Billy Pilgrim who journeys through time after witnessing the 1945 bombing of Dresden. The book flies in the face on many narrative conventions as Pilgrim jumps from decade to decade, experiencing slices of his life out of sequence, including his own death and being kidnapped by aliens. The non-linear writing is an effective way to simulate the perspective of the aliens — who are able to see things in four dimensions and for whom time is not sequential. The blurred fragments of Pilgrim’s life serve as a metaphor and reminder that there is no staightforward historical framework that can accurately explain, expound or encompass the abominable events of World War II.
Despite numerous attempts to ban the book from learning institutions, Slaughterhouse Five can still be found on reading lists in many college and university-level English classes.
Arguably, no other written work has done more to bestow literary respectability on the comic book medium than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. It’s a merciless deconstruction of the superhero genre but the story also functions as a kind of meta-history of all superhero comics. On top of that it’s a gripping murder mystery. Joss Whedon was once quoted saying Watchmen is “proof of everything a comic could do, but also an affirmation of everything comics had done.” Moore and Gibbons craft is so expertly exhibited in Watchmen that it has become a testament to the effectiveness of certain storytelling techniques that work amazingly in a graphic novel format but fail to translate to other mediums. Aside from it being superbly written, it’s this technical magnificence that has landed Watchmen on so many scholarly reading lists.
3. Brave New World
Brave New World is Aldous Huxley’s futuristic fable set in the year 2540 AD (referred to as the 7th century After Ford in book). The wold has formed a global society overseen by ten World Controllers who abolished natural reproductive methods in favour of breeding humans in hatcheries. Subconscious messaging forms the basis of the education system in a caste-based society where critical thinking and individual initiative are forcefully discouraged. The book suggests that a capitalist system using methods of soft control on an impressionable population can be just as atrocious as the aggressive totalitarian tactics often criticized in literature at the time of publication. Brave New World is a biting accusation of large-scale industrialization, capitalism, globalization, and American consumerism. Its social critique is as prevalent today as it ever was — which is why it remains a permanent fixture on many college and university reading lists.
2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Famously adapted into the cult sci-fi film classic, Blade Runner, this novel from science fiction legend Philip K. Dick takes a profound look at the essence of humanity. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic near future where most animals have been wiped out by extreme radiation poisoning brought on by a nuclear war. Protagonist and android bounty hunter, Rick Deckard is on a mission to chase down runaway replicants so that he might one day be able to purchase the ultimate status symbol — a living giraffe. The book explores the many ways in which we arbitrarily assign value to natural and synthetic lives and, as Deckard probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids, it begs the question “what does it mean to be human?” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a book that can be analyzed from 100 different angles — which is why it remains so popular in college and university classes.
This is the once sci-fi book you’re almost guaranteed to find in any freshman English class. George Orwell’s classic novel about a dystopian society ruled by a mysterious entity known as Big Brother. This book was so influential that today we describe almost anything that negatively impacts free society as “Orwellian”. It’s also where commonly used terms like “doublespeak”, “memory hole”, and “thought crime” originated. The novel is set in a wold of perpetual war where citizens are monitored and manipulated by a group of Inner Party elites that label independent thinking and individualism as thoughtcrime. 1984 is a rare and well-balanced mix combining exciting plot and political intrigue with exceptionally clear writing. If books were like illicit drugs for English teachers, 1984 would be crack cocaine.