Is it our hope for the future, or our fear of creating the very thing that will destroy us? Welcome to the world of science fiction, si-fi. Science fiction (SF) is a genre of speculative fiction that typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.
Recently, the streaming channels have shown a remake of the classic Frank Herbert novel, Dune. Another channel took on the massive project of producing Isaac Isamov’s Foundation Trilogy. I did not watch either. Instead I chose to re-read the books. But it did get me to think, what would be my list of SF novels that I would want with me on the proverbial desert island. Not to say I wouldn’t want a whole library filled with all manner of books. But for this post, what would be the SF list? I included a short description to either jog memories, garner interest, or let you wonder why in the world did he read that? For the historical record, a lot of these were read while on submarine patrol.
So… here is a list in no particular order… and, by the way, some books that are not purely SF made the list.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Widely regarded as the grandmother of all sci-fi novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein not only laid the foundation for science fiction as an exploration of what happens when Man plays God, but also asked the timeless question: what is it that makes us human?
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Jules Verne’s novels predicted many modern technologies, from solar-powered space flight to Zoom, but Captain Nemo’s Nautilus is a particular stand-out. What can I say, it’s a submarine thing. His other novels: Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth are also classics
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Time travel. Human evolution. Post-apocalyptic visions of Earth. Cli-fi (climate fiction). H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine has all of these sci-fi staples and more. Here, the unnamed Time Traveller goes some 800 millennia or so into the future to find that human evolution has divided along class lines. He then goes eons further, and although Wells’s imagining of a post-apocalyptic landscape may differ from those we see today, his speculations on the effects of industrialization can be read as proto-climate fiction.
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
Is it possible to give an adequate summary beyond bad guys lose, good guys win, but at a cost? Best I can do is to recommend either watch the movies or read the books.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley’s best-known novel takes place in a far-future version of London, one marked by free love, mandatory drug consumption, and the total destruction of the nuclear family. In the midst of all this is John, the “natural-born” — read: gestated and birthed by a human being — son of an ostracized World State citizen, who is transported to London after spending his entire life on a “Savage Reservation,” but finds the so-called comforts of his new home unbearable.
The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke by Arthur C. Clarke
It’s hard to imagine any writer working to reconcile religion and science with more intent than Arthur C. Clarke. In stories like “The Star,” “siseneG,” and “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Clarke wrestles with the nebulous concept of a higher power in a technologically advanced age.
The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov
The Three Laws of Robotics govern most synthetic life forms in Isaac Asimov’s short stories and have been widely adopted by sci-fi writers looking to set parameters for their AIs — or subvert them. Published in 1982, The Complete Robot collects 31 of Asimov’s short stories about automatons, in all shapes and sizes.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
A band of psychologists, under the leadership of psychohistorian Hari Seldon, plant a colony to encourage art, science, and technology in the declining Galactic Empire and to preserve the accumulated knowledge of humankind as the galaxy descends into a SF dark ages.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
This one is so influential that everyone knows it, even if they haven’t read it. George Orwell’s seminal dystopian novel introduced plenty of new words and phrases into the English lexicon — including Big Brother, doublethink, and thoughtcrime. Nineteen Eighty-Four created a blueprint for dystopian fiction that’s still in use today (Hunger Games, etc.)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Miller’s 1959 novel follows the Monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz as they attempt to preserve the remnants of civilization after a nuclear war.
Dune by Frank Herbert
It’s impossible to talk about the most influential sci-fi books of all time without talking about Dune. In his 1965 bestseller, Frank Herbert rolls court intrigue, witchcraft, climate change, the clash of civilizations, and elements of military sci-fi into a Chosen One narrative about a teenage Messiah. It is now in its third movie (or miniseries) version. The first was one of the worst movies of all time. The mini-series won a host of awards.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
If Mary Shelley started the SF question of what makes us human, Philip K. Dick updates the question. This book is the basis for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; it centers on a blue-collar assassin tasked with hunting down humanoid robots who have escaped servitude on Mars for a chance at freedom on Earth.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (note: Le Guin writes in a very dense style. She is probably the most “literary” of the authors on this page)
This story follows humanity’s emissary to an intergalactic council — a council with which the people of Terra wish to unite — as he navigates life among an alien race whose members don’t neatly match up to our ideas of identity. It is a narrative of the pitfalls of communicating across cultures: the way people talk past each other and pick up on meanings that the other person didn’t intend.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
One world experiences all the social problems of the 1% and the 99%. A group of idealist starts a new world based on communal life and equality with a bit of anarchy tossed in. One person with a history-changing theory wants to navigate between the worlds.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Young Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, bred to be a genius, is drafted to Battle School where he trains to lead the century-long fight against the aliens. It is a commentary on the difficulty of moving from war to peace.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Gibson’s groundbreaking debut novel follows Case, a burned-out computer whiz, who is asked to steal a security code that is locked in the most heavily guarded databank in the solar system. A seminal work in the genre that would come to be known as cyberpunk.
The Stand by Stephen King
A monumentally devastating plague leaves only a few survivors who, while experiencing dreams of a battle between good and evil, move toward an actual confrontation as they migrate to Boulder, Colo.
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The rare sci-fi writer whose work is enjoyed widely by both mainstream and literary fiction readers, Colson Whitehead has put out a number of alternate-history novels.