I’m a huge fan of science fiction, always have been, and as a result I’ve read a whole lot of dross in that genre over the years. As a result, when I introduce someone to science-fiction I’m very much aware that “it’s all spaceships, robots and crap, isn’t it?” isn’t just a biased opinion given to distance the speaker from the nerds, it’s often an informed opinion created by only ever seeing the bad stuff.
This list is designed as the answer to that statement. In compiling these nine stories (some are short stories, some are novels and a couple go beyond novel length to lodge themselves firmly in epic territory) I have set two requirements: there can only be one entry per author, and the work must have strong merit as a classic of science fiction.
So here goes.
9. Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers, by Lawrence Watt-Evans
The first entry on the list is a short story that won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1988 after being nominated for a Nebula Award in 1987. It has been reprinted in several volumes (my personal copy is in The New Hugo Winners, Volume II edited by Isaac Asimov) so it shouldn’t be too difficult to track a copy down.
Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers is told in the first person by a narrator who is sick of his life in a lonely mountain town where very little seems to happen. He takes a job at a diner that turns out to be a hub of sorts for interdimensional travel and there he learns some life truths that change him forever.
It’s a really sweet, really well-written story that takes a common theme in science-fiction and turns it on its head.
8. The Season of Passage, by Christopher Pike
Going to Mars is a dangerous matter, as Jennifer and I discussed in a recent sci-fi chat, but it’s even more deadly when ancient creatures are hell bent on killing you. This is a classic blending of science fiction and horror by a veteran of young adult horror making his first foray into the adult market.
I picked up my first copy of The Season of Passage in a branch of WH Smiths while waiting for a train and I had most of the novel read by the time I reached my destination. I simply couldn’t put it down. The book was passed along to so many other family members, all of whom adored it, that it eventually fell apart and I had to buy another copy – it’s that good!
Pike is an amazing author and although many of the themes in this novel have been played out many times in other stories, he still manages to bring a new twist to the narrative by mixing in his own recurring themes of spirituality and the endless battle between good and evil.
7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash is what happens if you take the cyberpunk genre and filter it through every action movie ever made, then mix in a huge burst of hardcore linguistics and social commentary for good measure.
In the grim, neon-lighted future where the United States is a fractured mess of corporate enclaves and the government is limited to little more than a couple of tiny, and mostly ineffective, government departments.
Into this mix steps ace hacker Hiro Protagonist, the greatest swordsman in the Metaverse (he also just happens to have written the code that controls swordfighting in the Metaverse…) and extreme courier Yours Truly; both of whom quickly find themselves embroiled in a life-threatening conspiracy. Does that sound like standard cyberpunk fare? It may well do but this gem of a novel takes that standard plot and creates a story so amazing that Snow Crash is responsible for inspiring:
- the creation of virtual world Second Life
- the creation of Google Earth
- the computer game Quake
- the concept of an avatar being your own representation in a computer-generated, virtual experience.
If that’s not enough to make you think this novel is ground-breaking then I don’t know what is.
6. The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft
The Call of Cthulhu is not my personal favourite of Lovecraft’s stories (that would probably be The Statement of Randolph Carter) but it is by far the most influential of his canon. It introduces the ancient alien horror of Cthulhu, it exemplifies the nihilistic cosmological horror that is so prevalent in Lovecraft’s work, it’s the work that most people recognise the dreaded Necronomicon from. It is, in essence, a condensed guide to Lovecraft all in one story.
The effect H.P. Lovecraft has had on science fiction and horror cannot be overstated. He influenced Stephen King. He influenced all of the modern Urban Fantasy genre (you’ll find references to Lovecraft in everything from Ghostbusters to Harry Dresden to Harry Potter). He influenced Doctor Who (seriously, check out the majority of Tom Baker’s era if you don’t believe me).
Lovecraft is everywhere in sci-fi and horror and the majority of his influences either started or crystallised in The Call of Cthulhu.
5. IT, by Stephen King
Sticking with the sci-fi horror theme, this list would not be complete without talking about Stephen King. While many see The Stand as King’s magnum opus, I have to disagree and point to the phenomenal work he created in IT.
If anything, IT is King’s answer to The Call of Cthulhu, only taking things to a terrifying extreme by making the lurking horror of the titular creature into a clear and present danger. While Cthulhu awaits in the depths, dreaming in a death-like state, in IT the monster is very much alive and kicking.
IT pushes the boundaries between science-fiction and urban fantasy almost to breaking point but the story’s firm grounding in the fictional 1980s town of Derry (which is so well-written I originally thought it was a real place) sets it enough into the sci-fi realm that it can sit comfortably on this list.
4. Diaspora, by Greg Egan
Greg Egan is a master of hard science fiction, by which I mean the emphasis is on the science part of the genre. Here he presents us with a world of biological humans who distrust their digital brethren but nevertheless find they will rely on their Citizen (digital human consciousnesses living in virtual worlds) cousins for their survival when an imminent gamma ray burst threatens to wipe out all life in the galaxy.
Diaspora takes a couple of mathematical theories and runs with them to their inevitable sci-fi conclusions as the means of letting humanity escape extinction opens up new, multidimensional universes to explore. Over the story’s multi-billion-year arc our protagonist, Yatima, will follow in the footsteps of an ancient alien race who set out to see just what was out there in the infinite cosmos.
This is not Egan’s hardest science-fiction story ever (I believe that title is still held by Schild’s Ladder, which covers some of the same themes as Diaspora and is in itself well worth a read) but it is an amazing read that explains the science behind the story well.
3. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
When Matheson was writing science fiction, it was a discredited genre thanks to the plethora of pulps and cheap, badly-acted B-movies that almost killed the genre stone dead. To get sci-fi printed in that era, you had to disguise it as horror, so that’s precisely what Richard Matheson did when he sat down to write I Am Legend.
This is a vampire story, but with such a colossal twist in it that you can practically hear the vampire’s neck snap in the process. Forget the godawful Will Smith film and all its predecessors, the real story is hardly anything like them. This is a morality tale set at the end of human existence, with one sole survivor trying his utmost to fend off the new reality of the world he is living in.
In some ways, reading this now feels very much like reading a novelisation of a Twilight Zone episode, only far, far better. Praise has been heaped on I Am Legend over the decades and with good reason. Few stories can match it in terms of its twist, and also in terms of the sheer, unrelenting horror of Robert Neville’s (the protagonist) situation.
Read this book, you won’t be disappointed.
2. Dune, by Frank Herbert
If science-fiction has an answer to The Lord of The Rings, it is Dune. This doorstopper of a novel introduces us to a humanity from so far in the future that it is almost entirely alien in its outlook. The lives and culture of the Empire ostensibly ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV but really ruled by humanity’s wholesale addiction to the Spice are familiar enough to allow us to get pulled into the story but foreign enough to be believably futuristic.
Dune is notable for both predicting how computers would become such a fundamental part of daily life but also for pushing them aside entirely. In the world of Dune, computers are banned by religious fiat thanks to a war against an artificially intelligent enemy in the distant past (from the point of view of the story’s characters).
There is a lot to dislike about Dune from a modern perspective – it is somewhat homophobic and it tells the tale of a less-civilised, native society that needs a cultured (i.e. white) man to solve its problems – but even taking into account its flaws, it is still a compelling and masterfully-written story that continues to influence all sci-fi settings to come after it (especially The Chronicles of Riddick, which are basically Dune filtered through 80’s action movies).
Dune was the first novel to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novel, thanks to taking home the very first Nebula.
1. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C Clarke
This novel is a masterpiece in how to write a story about first contact with an alien civilisation – and it doesn’t show us any aliens while it does it! A mysterious alien spacecraft is flying past Earth on its way to goodness knows where and mankind, whom the craft does not even appear to be aware of, have a limited amount of time to dock with it, explore its mysteries and get home.
Arthur C Clarke is a master of the sci-fi genre, presenting hard science wrapped in compelling fiction here. There’s a real sense that he has mapped out exactly what each part of this alien craft does, and why, before he sat down to write the first word of this story.
Everything has a reason for being there, everything has a reason for functioning like it does and everything will remain a mystery because this story is not about explaining things, it’s about showing just how little even the mankind of the future knows about the world around it.
Rendezvous With Rama is the only novel to have won every major science-fiction award, which include: the Nebula, the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Jupiter Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Locus Award and the Seiun Award. If that’s not enough to tell you that this novel is amazing then I don’t know what is.
So there you have it, nine science-fiction stories that you really must read. If you think sci-fi is all spaceships and robots and bug-eyed monsters made from melted plastic stuck to a sheet then prepare to think again.
Image via the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.