The science fiction novel is a curious thing, if only because the genre routinely oscillates between pop culture fodder and high academic analysis (most especially in recent years). Previously discarded as pulp or pop fiction meant to entertain rather than educate or enlighten, in recent years some very smart people have taken note of science fiction’s ability to analyze, examine and otherwise communicate our deepest fears and our projected course as a society. As they say, the workings of science fiction generally become science, and in many ways science fiction sets an interesting precedent for us to examine as a species. That’s why we here at Goliath have rounded up 10 of the most important, most influential and otherwise greatest science fiction novels ever written, so as to better educate our readers on the intricacies of this divisive yet ultimately crucial genre of writing.
10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
It’s no secret that Hollywood owes a great debt to the late Philip K. Dick, the legendary and prolific science fiction author behind the stories we can only assume make up 98% of Hollywood’s science fiction quota (seriously, they’ve adapted everything). Films like Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and perhaps most importantly, Blade Runner, are all inspired by Dick’s work; it’s that last film that was inspired by the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, originally published in 1968. The story, which follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he’s tasked with eliminating six escaped androids, served as the basis for Blade Runner and exists in its own right as a riveting science fiction tale whose influence extends far beyond its cinematic counterpart and into the greater realm of science fiction writing, as innumerable authors have cited both this novel and Dick as primary influences on their work.
9. Dune – Frank Herbert
When it was originally published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune was a revelation. After winning the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel in its year of publication, it went on to win the Hugo Award in 1966. However, an ill-fated adaptation courtesy of David Lynch in 1984 did much to lessen the glow of this highly influential space saga. In recent years, however, there’s been a conscious effort by fans of the novel to speak to its depth and strong writing, while bringing it back into the cultural spotlight as one of the foundational tomes of the science fiction genre. The novel, which explores the relationships between a group of families, both royal and not, who control planets in an interplanetary society, contains themes of ecology, religion, humanity and technology and is surprisingly astute for a novel published some 50 odd years ago.
8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
By far the funniest novel on this list (actually, it’s going to be the funniest novel on just about any list), Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is equal parts science fiction, comedy, satire and absurdity, a glorious combination of themes and ideas that probably shouldn’t work when you break them down and look at them individually, but when placed together become greater than the sum of their parts. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is the first novel in a five part “trilogy” (a perfect example of Adams’ strange, offbeat humor), follows a pair of intergalactic hitchhikers who, after Earth’s destruction, find themselves accompanying Zaphod Beeblebrox, the former President of the Galaxy, on a quest to discover the meaning of life (spoiler alert: it’s 42. Yeah, wrap your brain around that one). An incredibly funny novel that should be read by most everyone, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should probably be higher on this list (but there’s just so many good sci-fi novels!).
7. Neuromancer – William Gibson
Originally published in 1984 by Canadian science fiction author William Gibson, Neuromancer is a highly influential novel that is, in many ways, the epicenter of a popular science fiction subculture most often referred to as “cyberpunk,” which sees the tropes and advanced technology of science fiction used to tell stories that engage in grungy aesthetic and revolutionary politics. It’s an artful mix that plays to the best of both science fiction and punk ideologies, and its roots are very evident in Gibson’s text, which sees a former hacking great caught up in a web of mystery after he’s hired to return to the game for one last hack. The winner of the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award (remember him!) and the Hugo Award, Neuromancer is critically acclaimed despite marginal commercial success at the time of its release (although it’s been far more successful in more recent pressings), and its underground success has only added to its cultural capital as the years have progressed.
6. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
If there’s one novel on this list we’re betting on readers having been exposed to, it’s this one. Noted satirist George Orwell’s magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-Four (and yes, it’s important that you spell the numbers rather than simply write them out in numerical form, as it makes a significant difference in the perception of the text) tells the story of Winston Smith, a Ministry of Truth employee who begins to question the all-seeing and all-manipulating eye of Big Brother, much to the chagrin of his superiors and contemporaries. A chilling examination of power, technology and culture, Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most prescribed novels for a reason; it begs its reader to think, and to think critically on where we are as a society and where we ought to be going (or not going, in some cases).
5. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
If Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the riotous, laugh out loud little brother at the science fiction dinner table, then Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is the witty, well-educated older brother whose comedy is pointed and somewhat depressing in comparison to the absurdity of his kid brother. Slaughterhouse-Five, originally published in 1969, employs a non-traditional narrative function and the tragic bombing of Dresden in World War II as a backdrop through which to tell a story of aliens, time travel (or lack thereof, depending on how you filter the device itself) and a very unfortunate day for the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim. A novel that’s been both critically lauded and commercially successful since its release, Slaughterhouse-Five is often cited as Vonnegut’s finest creative endeavor and is routinely placed alongside the greatest science fiction novels ever written.
4. The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
We’re taking a step way back in time for this novel, which was originally published in 1897 and remains one of the oldest examples of the science fiction genre in literary history. The War of the Worlds, written by acclaimed science fiction author H.G. Wells (of Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau fame), is the first-person narration of an alien invasion (specifically, Martians) and has been adapted to a variety of other mediums, including radio, television and cinema. So influential there are theories that it actually influenced the development of technology that would later land humanity on the Moon (rocket scientist Robert Goddard was a noted fan), The War of the Worlds remains one of the quintessential novels in the science fiction canon.
3. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
Do yourself a favor and disregard the shoddy 2013 adaptation of Ender’s Game and read the classic science fiction novel instead; there’s plenty the movie leaves out of this classic tale of man versus insect(oid alien). Told from the perspective of Ender Wiggins, a tactical prodigy who is chosen for an elite training program meant to assist humanity in a battle against an insectoid alien race known as “buggers,” Ender’s Game was originally published in 1985 after being released as a short story some time earlier. The novel, which has received some criticism for its glorification of violence, remains a fundamental science fiction tome that spawned an entire series of sequels.
2. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
There’s few novels in history that have been so ahead of their time that going back and reading them in the contemporary moments reveals a level of genius that couldn’t have been evident at the time of publication; Brave New World is one of those novels, and the mind behind the novel, acclaimed science fiction author Aldous Huxley, is most certainly a genius. Brave New World anticipated scientific and social developments in spades, everything from media saturation to dystopian overtones to eugenics, with the latter being hinted at even before scientists had uncovered the structure and function of DNA. Brave New World, which is often cited alongside Nineteen Eighty Four as one of the science fiction texts most able to analyze the state of contemporary society, can’t be missed as a science fiction novel for the ages.
1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is undoubtedly a master of his craft, and this becomes immediately apparent upon reading the first sentence in his iconic science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451. The story of book burner Guy Montag, whose job is to enforce censorship that involves the written word, has become legendary at this point, both as a metaphor for censorship and as a cautionary tale as to what might happen if television manages to usurp the written word as the primary vehicle for entertainment and enlightenment in America. Bradbury, who died in 2012 and was unfortunate enough to see his metaphor played out in real life, supposedly based the novel on his fears of book burning during the McCarthy era of America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In an ironic twist, Fahrenheit 451 has been banned or censored on numerous occasions, a fact which only seems to reinforce the story’s poignancy, something lost on the foolish souls who still believing banning books is a solution to what ails the world.