SF CORE Best Lists
SF ERA Best Lists
SF GENRE Best Lists
OTHER Best Lists

Best Classic Science Fiction Books

Top 25 Best Classic Science Fiction Books | Best Science Fiction Books

When John W. Campbell took over as editor of Astounding in 1939, he instituted a new regime. Now, he told them, he wanted sound science, with the most formidable antagonist being the physical laws of the universe, and with mankind being at least the intellectual equal of any aliens encountered. (We will overlook, for the moment, his interest in psi and his devotion to the ideas of Dianetics.) Campbell knew exactly what he wanted, and would make his authors rewrite and rewrite until he got it, and the result was a major change in the character of science fiction.

Campbell ushered in what has become known as the Golden Age of science fiction, a period that saw the rise of what we recognise as hard sf.

By the early 50s, new magazines such as Galaxy, If and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were emerging to challenge the dominance of Campbell's Astounding. They maintained the emphasis on hard sf that Campbell had initiated, but also encouraged a more humane and occasionally a more experimental approach. The style of science fiction that Campbell championed remained the dominant mode of science fiction until the emergence of the New Wave in the 1960s, but let's face it, when you think about science fiction you automatically call to mind the classic stories from Campbell's Golden Age.

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. Gully Foyle is a shipwrecked sailor abandoned out in space, and when ships pass him by without stopping to pick him up he vows to exact revenge. He manages to repair his ship, and after numerous terrors and adventures he manages to find his way back to civilisation. There he starts to put his plan into action. Famously based on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (like Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, another amazing space opera that very nearly made it onto this list), this novel is colourful, startling and unfailingly surprising.   William Gibson has said: "I can't recall having met an SF writer whose opinion I respected who failed to share my enthusiasm for Alfred Bester's work" and The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!)is regularly and rightly listed as one of the best science fiction novels ever written.

Similar Recommendations

Bester's other great novel is The Demolished Man, which won the very first Hugo Award. It asks the question: how do you get away with murder in a society in which telepathy is so common that the police can know everything going on in your mind? Told in a free and easy manner, with lots of wordplay and typographical tricks, it is another novel that clearly deserves to be recognised as a classic.

If you are fascinated by Bester's adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, you should also check out Spirit: or the Princess of Bois Dormant by Gwyneth Jones, which also uses the Dumas novel as a model for a story of interstellar adventure. In this case it's also a sequel to her award-winning Aleutian Trilogy.

For another modern space opera with Bester's fingerprints all over it, check out The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate and Cibola Burn. The co-author, Daniel Abraham, acknowledges Bester as a major influence then goes on to list what elements of the story are owed to The Stars My Destination:http://www.danielabraham.com/2012/01/30/paying-tribute-the-stars-my-destination/

Heinlein kept returning to the Moon several times throughout his career, in stories like "The Man Who Sold the Moon", "The Black Pits of Luna" and "The Menace from Earth". The Luna colony was an essential stage in his future history, the first sustained movement away from earth and the first step in learning a new independence. This all comes together in what is perhaps his best novel, a book that also encapsulates the science fiction view of the Moon before the actual Moon landing.In this novel the Moon is a successful colony, but its economic and political independence is restricted by the Earth government. Eventually, the colonists revolt in a story that repeats the story of American independence but with the additional dangers of an unforgiving landscape, but with the great advantage of being able to bombard Earth simply by launching rocks at it.Why it tops the list:This Hugo winning novel is quite simply the most vivid and memorable account of life on the Lunar colony that science fiction has produced.

Similar Recommendations

If you like Heinlein then you should read more books by Heinlein of course. But what to read next? Well, there's so much work by Heinlein that everyone interested in science fiction should read, but here's a selection.

The Door into Summer is a novel that explores Heinlein's fascination with time travel. When inventor D.B. Davis is tricked out of his company, his former partners put him into cold sleep. But when he awakes, years later, he finds that many of the innovations in the world are credited to one D.B. Davis. Finding someone who has invented time travel, he goes back knowing how to change the world.

Starship Troopers, another Hugo ward winning novel, is one of the best known of Heinlein's books, a military adventure that traces the career of the central character from recruitment up to an interstellar war.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a Hugo Award winning novel that became a cult classic during the 1960s, and was named as one of the "Books that Shaped America" by the Library of Congress. It's the story of a human raised on Mars who returns to Earth and ends up transforming human society.

If you're fascinated by Heinlein's account of lunar colonies in revolt from Earth, you should check out Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick, which tells the story from the other side. RagelGumm lives in a 1950s small town where he makes his living winning newspaper competitions. But strange things start to happen; a soft drinks stand disappears leaving a slip of paper with the words SOFT DRINKS STAND written on it. Gradually, Gumm works out that the small town is not real, and that the newspaper competition is actually a way of predicting where the rebelling lunar colonies will bombard next. It's a novel full of Dick's typical undermining of reality, but it makes a fascinating counterpoint to Heinlein's novel.

Everyone loves the idea of the thinking man's fireman (particularly middle aged women who read Fifty Shades of Grey), but that's not why Fahrenheit 451 made it to second on this list. Bradbury made his bread and butter with short horror stories, but also wrote one of the most popular dystopian science-fiction novels. Why is it so popular? It's definitely the most accessible dystopian science fiction novel -the science is soft and easy to digest, the word count is short, and the theme of society's dependence on technology is so subtle that it probably goes over the heads of many contemporary readers who are busy plugged into their iPhones, iPads, and whatever else they have in their sockets and ears -they're too busy staring at their screens to realize it's a metaphor. Oh, and lots of action. Who doesn't love fire, chases, and explosions? The novel follows Guy Montag, in a dystopian American society where books and intellectual thought are banned. Guy is a fireman in a society where firemen don't put out fires, they burn contraband books, and the houses the banned books are found in. Montag never questions this destruction, until his wife attempts to kill herself, and he meets a neighborhood girl who believes in freedom of expression, thought, and in the ideas in books. Guy begins to hoard the books he is sent to destroy, and reads them in secret. When he's found out, he goes on the run. In a deliciously ironic move, when the book originally came out, it was banned in various schools for "questionable themes." Looking back, this looks like authoritarian institutions becoming uncomfortable about the parallels between the book and society. Scarily, the novel was banned as recently as 1998 in a Missouri high school for using the words "God damn". In between bannings, the novel retrospectively won a Hugo award.

Similar Recommendations

The words have become so commonplace we hardly realise we are using them: Big Brother is watching you, the Ministry of Truth, Room 101, Newspeak, thoughtcrime. George Orwell gave us a language for describing our fear of any controlling and intrusive government.Winston Smith is a minor clerk in a future where the world's three great power blocs are constantly at war with one another, though alliances shift daily, and his job is to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports whatever is today's party line. It is a world where everyone is under surveillance all the time; the ubiquitous telescreens are always on, always spouting the party line, and always watching you. Winston meets a colleague, Julia, and realises that they both share the same distrust of the regime. They begin an affair that would be forbidden by the state, but the agents of the state are watching them all the time. Eventually they are arrested and Winston is taken to Room 101 to be tortured into betraying Julia and swearing his love for Big Brother. Nineteen Eighty-Four is regularly listed among the best novels in the English language; it is also one of the scariest. No other account of a totalitarian regime has so captured our imaginations. It's a chilling book, but absolutely brilliant and unforgettable.

Similar Recommendations

Animal Farm is Orwell's other great dystopian novel. Disguised as a rather charming fable about animals taking over the running of their farm, it is really a chilling account of Soviet Russia as the pigs, particularly Napoleon, become all-powerful rulers indistinguishable from the humans they have displaced. And the great rallying cry: all animals are created equal, is subtly changed to read: all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

We by Yevgeny Zamiatin (which appears elsewhere on this list) is the inspiration behind much of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which also appears elsewhere on this list) is the other great dystopian novel of the period.

One by David Karp is set in a near-future America that believes itself to be approaching perfection, though it is in fact a dystopia. An incredibly complex bureaucracy is in place to keep control of all citizens by encouraging a vast network of informers, but when one informer falls foul of the system he finds himself rounded up and subjected to torture.

Alternative Choice
The Trial by Franz Kafka gave us the word "Kafkaesque" for any nonsensical bureaucracy which gives no reasonable way forward. Although it is a contemporary mainstream novel, the way that the protagonist, Josef K, finds himself arrested for an unspecified crime by agents of an unspecified force, and brought to trial in the attic of a huge tenement building where the procedures remain ever mysterious to him, all adds up to a powerful and haunting dystopia.

In Billion Year Spree, his epic history of science fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term "cosy catastrophe" for the sorts of novels that John Wyndham wrote. Well, they are certainly catastrophes, but they are far from cosy.The first and best of them is surely The Day of the Triffids, in which there is actually a double catastrophe. Triffids are tall, carnivorous plants that are capable of locomotion and that there probably bioengineered in the Soviet Union before escaping into the wild. At first they present no danger, but then there is a curious meteor shower which is assumed to be connected to atomic weapons, and everyone who sees it is rendered blind. Now the triffids become especially dangerous.Only a few people retain their sight, one of which is the narrator, Bill Masen, who makes his way through a devastated landscape, menaced by triffids at every turn. The sighted are enslaved by the blind; tentative communities grow up and then fall apart; despotic military governments emerge. It's an amazing vision of a world falling apart almost in an instant. The Day of the Triffids was the first of the great British catastrophe stories that appeared in the years after the Second World War, a novel that has gone on to be taught in schools and dramatized for film and television, so it is one of the few science fiction classics that is familiar to people who never read the genre.

Books in Triffids Series (1)

Similar Recommendations

Wyndham wrote a string of engaging catastrophe stories, of which one of the best if least typical is probably The Chrysalids. Set in a post-apocalyptic Labrador, where a technologically limited religious society is in place and anyone who displays mutations, known as "Blasphemies", is cast out, it concerns a group of children who discover they have telepathic powers, which leads them to question the nature of their society.

Telepathic children also feature, rather more eerily, in The Midwich Cuckoos. A small village in England is cut off for a day by strange gas that renders everyone unconscious. When the gas dissipates, everything seems to return to normal until, some months later, every woman of child-bearing age in the village finds she is pregnant. The children are all pale, with golden eyes and telepathic abilities, and they mature remarkably quickly. It's obvious that they are not human, but how can they be dealt with when they can control anyone who threatens them?

The sort of catastrophe that Wyndham wrote about can also be found in the work of several other British writers, including Keith Roberts, whoseThe Furies is clearly modelled on The Day of the Triffids. Nuclear tests go wrong, disrupting the landscape, while at the same time giant alien wasps invade.

In The Death of Grass by John Christopher, the catastrophe is a mutated virus that attacks all forms of grass, including wheat and barley, leading to a devastated landscape and mass famine.

You're going to hate me for this. Really. See, Clarke is one of the three giants of science fiction, old-school science fiction. He was writing this novel in 1953 at a time when the genre was read almost exclusively in serials that showed up in magazines that were aimed at boys and men. His characterizations are often flat, his science is questionable at times and his pacing reflects the serialized quickie style of magazine shorts. Still, at some point you need to read this book in spite of its potential flaws. Many books follow a familiar format allowing the reader to feel like they can predict the ending. You get sucked in and a bit complacent. Be ready, Clarke will jerk you around in the exact moment where you think you have it solved. He's Clarke and this is his best.
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. The Three Laws of Robotics are one of the most famous inventions in all of science fiction. Robots were traditionally presented as a threat to humanity, an underclass that would inevitably revolt. Asimov thought that idea was nonsense, and devised the Three Laws as a way of showing robots as sympathetic. Naturally, he then spent most of his robot stories trying to subvert or undermine the Three Laws, but they still provided the guiding principle not just of the stories collected in I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots, but in novels like Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. One of the later robot stories, "The Bicentennial Man" which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette, features a robot who becomes human, but that was the trajectory of all of his robot stories. They are a fascinating study in characters who start out as machines but always prove themselves to be something more.Why it's on the list: Asimov's robot stories changed the game. Everyone who wrote about robots afterwards recognized the Three Laws, either explicitly or implicitly. Even work written in opposition to Asimov, such as John Sladek's Roderick, still pays homage to the influence of Asimov's work. Still today you'll find references to asimov circuits or positronic games; even in the real world there's now a company called iRobot and a Japanese robot named Asimo. The whole enterprise of robotics, real and fictional, owes a debt of gratitude to Isaac Asimov.
We often tend to slip into the notion that before the advent of writers like Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ, science fiction was an exclusively masculine domain. But that couldn't be further from the truth. There have always been women who played a prominent part in the literature. C.L. Moore is a case in point. With her very first sale, "Shambleau", in 1933, she created one of the creepiest and most effective of all weird tales, with a story of a planetary adventurer and his encounter with a beautiful but deadly alien vampire. She was just as adept with straight science fiction stories, such as the wonderful "No Woman Born", which tells the story of a glamorous and celebrated performer who is killed in a fire but her brain is preserved and put into a specially-designed robot body. For the men in her life she thus becomes an object of fear, a powerful woman that they cannot control, but for the performer herself she suddenly realises that she can achieve so much more than she ever did before. With her husband, Henry Kuttner, Moore also collaborated on classic stories such as "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" and "Vintage Season", which were written as by Lewis Padgett or Laurence O'Donnell. Practically everything she wrote was at short story length, and as the title suggests the best of them have been brought together in this collection. Why it's on the list: From the 1930s through to the 1950s, C.L. Moore was one of the leading genre writers who had a profound influence on the shape of weird fiction as well as "golden age" science fiction.
Ah Dune -- a million words have been written about Dune, more words in fact than Herbert himself ever wrote in his grand planetary romance meets ecological space opera.  Dune has made just about every relevant recommendation list on this site and you'll find most people put Dune near the top of anything with the words 'best' and 'science fiction' in the same sentence.It's not surprise that critics endlessly refer to it as Science Fiction's answer to Lord of the Rings.Dune is many things: a planetary romance, a science fiction Shakespearean tragedy, an ecological science fiction, a revenge tale, a saga of a dynasty, and a Space Opera.It's a Space Opera that (mostly) takes place on a planet. A very special planet. Dune. A planet that controls an empire of planets.If you are the one person who has not yet read Dune, start. The series is sometimes polarizing, but it's a grand sweep of politics, war, economics, dynasty, and religion. But it's also (at least the first couple books) a very personal tale of a boy who becomes a man, and a man who becomes a leader, and a leader who becomes a god, a god who becomes a man.Read it and weep for love.Series InfoI've only listed the superior original Dune trilogy (which was six books with the seventh book, partially completed and edited to completion by Herbert's son, Brian). The first couple books are the absolute best with the post-humorously released book a disappointment. Frank Herbert's son Brian along with Kevin J Anderson have pumped out an enormance amount of ti-in dune novels that tell prequel and sequel stories in the universe. While they are decent reads, they are a shadow of a spec of the brilliance of the original series.

Books in Dune Chronicles Series (7)

Similar Recommendations

Don't let the bloat of the later Dune novels put you off. You really should read some of Frank Herbert's other novels.

The Dragon in the Sea is another novel of depleted natural resources, in this case oil following a decade-long war between West and East. But the nuclear submarines that the West is using to harvest the scarce oil are simply disappearing. It's not the great world-building epic of Dune, but it is a gripping thriller with a strong message.

The Eyes of Heisenberg is set in a future in which the majority of people on Earth are ruled by the genetically superior Optimen. In the main the rule seems benevolent, despite the fact that the Optimen have dramatically restricted technological development, but a resistance movement is starting to develop. The future world is very vividly drawn, and this is another of the gripping plots that Herbert seemed to produce effortlessly.

Hellstrom's Hive takes what Herbert called "the most horrible kind of civilization you could imagine", and then makes them into the good guys. The horrible civilization is the sort of regimented, highly structured life of social insects; but when a group of humans try to live this way, they are disrupted by the intrusion of government agents.

Dune is a one-off, there is no other novel quite like it. But if you are looking for a novel set in a richly imagined desert landscape with a serious ecological message, you could turn to The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.

These were the great years of the sf short story; magazines like Astounding, F&SF, Galaxy and If were in their pomp and most of the brilliant novels of the period began their life as short stories. It would be easy to fill this list with short stories which together captured the classic years of science fiction perfectly, but there is one story that really stands out. If you were looking for one story that defined hard sf it would have to be "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. A spaceship pilot is delivering urgently needed medical supplies when he discovers a young girl stowaway. Her extra weight means that his ship will not have the fuel necessary to reach its destination, so in the end he has no alternative but to jettison her. This is exactly what hard sf is all about: the laws of the universe are immutable, the only enemy is space itself. It is short, succinct, and unforgettable, an object lesson in what John W, Campbell wanted from the science fiction he published. Why it's on the list: Okay, the story is nonsense: no ship designed for such missions would be engineered to such ridiculously fine margins; no interstellar craft would have such lax security that a young girl could just wander unchallenged onto the ship; and there would inevitably be other objects aboard that could be jettisoned to make up for the not very great weight of a young girl. Let us not ignore, either, the blatant misogyny of the story, or the fact that Tom Godwin rewrote the story numerous times to find ways of saving the girl but Campbell wouldn't accept any of them. Even so, the story still generates impassioned debate today, some 60 years after it was first published. It is, like it or not, a story that has lasted and that has shaped our understanding of science fiction.
During the 1950s and 60s, as the Cold War constantly threatened to heat up into nuclear exchanges, science fiction writers more and more turned to imagining a post-apocalyptic world. This novel, the only one that Miller published in his lifetime, is surely one of the absolute best.It starts some 600 years after the nuclear holocaust that is known as the Flame Deluge. The survivors had set out to destroy all learning, fearing that it would lead to a return of the forbidden nuclear science, but a Jewish electrician, Leibowitz, had founded a religious body dedicated to preserving books from before the war. Now a young monk in the Order discovers an ancient abandoned fallout shelter with writings that may have belonged to Leibowitz himself, including a handwritten shopping list. The survival of these documents is seen as emblematic of the survival of humanity itself.600 years later, and a renaissance is just beginning. But as the monks of Saint Leibowitz share their accumulated knowledge with local leaders, they find themselves being used as pawns in a war of expansion. Another 600 years pass, and scientific knowledge has returned more or less to where it was before the Flame Deluge. But the political differences and petty wars continue, and it soon becomes obvious that nuclear weapons will again be used. So the Order of Saint Leibowitz builds a starship in order to escape the holocaust and continue their mission of preserving knowledge. A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award. Miller was one of the few sf writers of the time to use religious themes in his science fiction, and it helps to give this novel an intellectual depth and an emotional richness that are quite exceptional. This is regularly and correctly recognised as a masterpiece.

Books in St. Leibowitz Series (1)

Similar Recommendations

Shortly before his death, Miller wrote a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Terry Bisson. Unfortunately, like many belated sequels, it doesn't really have the power or the quality of the original.

Among the post-apocalyptic stories from around the same time, you should also check out Davy by Edgar Pangborn, a beautifully written and quite enchanting account of a young man growing up in a pseudo-medieval society centuries after an atomic war, where the all-powerful Church actively suppresses technology.

Hard science fiction in its purest form didn't have villains; the implacable laws of the universe were enemy enough for anyone. After all, who needs enemies when you're faced with an oblate planet where gravity is 3g at the equator but a massively crippling 700g at the pole? That's what Hal Clement created with the planet Mesklin in his greatest novel, Mission of Gravity. A human probe has fallen at the pole, and team member Charles Lackland has to get it back. But he can scarcely stand at the equator, so he has to recruit a local trader to do the job for him. This is Barlennan, a centipede-like being who is terrified of even small heights, because any fall in 700g would be fatal. The story very simply tells of his mission, and the ways he must overcome the simple, practical obstacles that nature puts in his way. Why it's on the list: This is the definitive example of worldbuilding in science fiction. Clement carefully worked out the physical characteristics of his world, then wrote a story simply designed to explore those characteristics. As a story in which we slowly come to recognise the truly alien, an environment that is incredibly hostile, the novel is surprisingly tense and full of interest.

Books in Mesklin Series (2)

Well we said that John W. Campbell liked psi, and so did a lot of other writers of the time. None more so that A.E. Van Vogt, whose tale of telepathic superior beings hunted by ordinary humans really struck a nerve with his readers. "Fans Are Slans" they used to say, meaning that a liking for science fiction made you special but despised by ordinary mortals. Kind of a silly idea, but then, early science fiction readers were looking for anything that made them feel special. This novel certainly fit the bill. Slans have superior intellectual powers, and little golden tendrils that allow them to communicate telepathically. Unfortunately, ordinary humans are so afraid of the Slans that they try to wipe them out. Which means that nine-year-old Jommy Cross has to run for his life, carrying with him his father's brilliant inventions, which make him the last hope to save his race from genocide. Why it's on the list: Slan caught the imagination of sf readers like no other science fiction novel of the time. It was undoubtedly the pre-eminent novel about psi-powers published at the time.
Practically all of Cordwainer Smithâs fiction belongs within a future history that starts just a few years from now and extends for tens of thousands of years into the future. At the heart of this, and the core of his very best work, was the Instrumentality of Mankind, the body that ruled an elegant, utopian realm that extended across space. But what makes these stories interesting in posthuman terms is the Underpeople. These are genetically enhanced animals, such as the cat-derived CâMell in âThe Ballad of Lost CâMellâ or the dog-derived DâJoan in âThe Dead Lady of Clown Townâ, which are originally treated as slaves, but gradually revolt and win their freedom. By the time we come to the stories set furthest in the future, they are fully integrated into the social order. Why itâs on the list:One of the persistent themes of posthuman fiction is that the future does not belong to humankind. Time and again we are shown that something else will replace man, or at least share the world with our descendants. This may be robots or AIs, or, as here, it may be evolved or enhanced animals. And nobody has shown those enhanced animals with as much elegance and delight as Cordwainer Smith.

Books in Instrumentality Of Mankind Series (7)

Similar Recommendations

Apart from his spectacular stories, Cordwainer Smith wrote only one novel, Norstrilia, which is also set in the future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, and which is also eminently readable. The hero amasses the biggest fortune in the history of the universe thanks to stroon, a drug that allows people to live extended lifespans. He is so rich that he is rumoured to have bought Old Earth, the legendary home of humanity. Touring Earth in the company of the bewitching cat woman C'Mell, he puts his immense fortune towards campaigning for the rights of the under people.

If you are looking for other distinctive voices in science fiction, you would do well to try the stories of R.A. Lafferty, for instance in Nine Hundred Grandmothers or Does Anyone Else have Something Further to Add? Idiosyncratic, wacky, weird, his stories are funny but unsettling, as if the only way to make sense of what happened is to accept that the world doesn't make sense. In the superb, "Narrow Valley", for instance, an old indian preserves his land from unscrupulous dealers by folding the landscape so the valley can only be seen by those who know it's there. Or in "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" a group of scientists use a time machine to change the past, but because everything has changed they don't realise it was successful, so they try again, and again.

At the height of Cold War paranoia, Algis Budrys wrote a novel that perfectly captured the doubts and distrusts of the time. There is an explosion at an allied research station close to the Iron Curtain, and leading scientist Lucas Martino is either rescued or kidnapped (depending on your point of view) by the Soviets. Eventually they return him to the West, or at least, they return someone who might be Lucas Martino. He has an advanced metal prosthetic arm and his face has been replaced by a featureless metal plate, he is literally a man in an iron mask, but is he who he claims to be. Whatever the allies do, they can never be certain that this really is Lucas Martino, and, indeed, by the end even the man claiming to be Lucas Martino is no longer sure of his own identity. Why it's on the list: It isn't often that science fiction, existential puzzle and spy thriller all combine so effectively, but this novel is guaranteed to keep you gripped right to the very end.
Andre Norton was one of the most prolific writers of science fiction and fantasy throughout the 1950s and 60s, but the two strands of her career came together in the extended series that began with Witch World. The novel opens on Earth, where Simon Tregarth is a former soldier who has become a black marketer. On the run from the authorities and from other criminals, he is given the opportunity to flee through a gateway to another world. What he finds there reads like a standard fantasy adventure, full of warring tribes and witches and colourful escapades, but towards the end we realise that the people Tregarth is fighting have also arrived from another universe, though one with a higher level of technology than Earth. Why it's on the list: Andre Norton's colourful planetary adventures were responsible for introducing an extraordinary number of readers to science fiction. And in the long Witch World series, that eventually became a setting shared with other writers, she combined the most engaging aspects of her fantasy and her science fiction.
In his pioneering study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis argued that The Space Merchants was possibly the best science fiction novel ever written. In the fifty-odd years since then, little has happened to change that judgement.The Space Merchants is a coruscating satire that just gets more relevant with every passing year. It's set in a world where all the real power is held by corporations. As a result, the most important business in the world is advertising, convincing people that each new product is making their lives better and better, even though necessities like fuel and water are in increasingly short supply. Does that sound like the world today? You bet it does.Our hero is a top copywriter who has been given the job of attracting colonists to Venus, even though the planet is so inhospitable that it will be generations before it is fully habitable. But there are conspiracies going on that he is not aware of, and in time he is shanghaied and his identity stolen. Nevertheless, his copywriting skills make him a powerful propagandist for the revolutionaries, and eventually he is able to unravel all the lies and mysteries that have been going on. Kingsley Amis was right: this is still one of the best sf novels ever written, an unsurpassed example of science fiction as satire that you just have to read.

Books in The Space Merchants Series (2)

Similar Recommendations

Together and apart, Pohl and Kornbluth were absolute masters of sharp, effective science fiction. Their wonderful collaborations include Gladiator-at-Law, which makes a great companion piece with The Space Merchants, only in this novel it's the lawyers who rule the world, with gladiatorial contests staged to please the masses.

Kornbluth's best solo novel is probably The Syndic, in which America is ruled by rival criminal gangs, although for most people daily life is pretty much unchanged so long as their protection money is paid on time.

Pohl's solo novels include Man Plus, which won the Nebula Award. It's the story of a man being altered to allow him to survive on Mars, but the more he is changed the more distant he becomes from his human self. However, Pohl's very best novel is our Alternative Choice.

Alternative Choice
Gateway, which won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards, is one of those fascinating novels, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, which explores the alien without any aliens actually appearing. Gateway is a space station built by a long-vanished race, the Heechee. There are hundreds of alien craft abandoned around Gateway, but humans have no idea how to operate them. Slowly, by trial and error, they learn to master some of the controls, but the results can still be disastrous. The novel tells the story of one volunteer who becomes phenomenally rich as a result of his mission, but only at the cost of his friends and colleagues being sent into a black hole. Gateway was the first of the Heechee novels, with five other books following, but like the Rama novels the series becomes far less interesting once the actual aliens put in an appearance.

From Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" to Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, there was something of a trend in the 1950s for bringing Catholicism into a science fiction context, usually to the detriment of the religion. But even in that company, A Case of Conscience stands out; it was the only one that paid serious attention to Catholic doctrine and theology. A Jesuit priest, who is also a world-class biologist, is part of the four-man team sent to explore the world of Lithia. The Lithians live in what seems to be a utopia, there's no crime or war, they have a highly developed moral sense and yet they have no religion. One of the team wants to exploit the planet for its mineral wealth, but the priest feels they must place it in quarantine: the absence of God means it is the work of the devil. When they return to Earth, the priest's own faith is tested as his commitment to Catholicism comes under question. But when, at the end, Lithia is destroyed, it is ambiguous whether this is the result of carelessness in the mineral extraction or because of the priest's exorcism. Why it's on the list: A Case of Conscience didn't just win the Hugo Award for best novel, but the original novella that formed the first part of the novel would later win a Retro Hugo, a unique double that speaks volumes for how powerfully this novel set scientific rationality against religious belief.

Books in After Such Knowledge Series (3)

Philip K. Dick was one of the most idiosyncratic and successful writers in science fiction. Okay, he's probably better known these days for all the films that have been based on his work, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and heaven knows how many others. Certainly there have been many more films based on Dick's fiction than any other sf writer. But forget the films, even the great ones, like Blade Runner, can't begin to match the compelling weirdness of the novels.Dick used to explore the same ideas in novel after novel. Reality was undermined, usually as a result of drugs; there was a truth under the illusion of the world, but it wasn't always good to learn that truth; things we trust turn out to be unreliable. And yet, the novels were far from samey, indeed the narrow range of obsessions resulted in an incredibly wide range of fiction. What's more, Dick wrote with a mordant wit that made his work consistently among the funniest of all science fiction.Because he was so prolific, and because he hit the target so frequently, it is very difficult to choose just one book as a representative of his work. In the end we chose The Man in the High Castle, which in some ways seems a very untypical book because there is none of the pyrotechnic weirdness that often turns up in his fiction. Indeed, the novel seems like a fairly conventional alternate history in which the Axis Powers won the Second World War. As a result, in the 1960s of the novel, America is divided in three; Germany rules the East Coast, Japan controls the West Coast, while a narrow independent buffer state exists between the two.But in the end it is far from conventional. The story is full of fakes and deceptions; several major characters are travelling under false identities, some of the characters are dealing in fake American "antiquities", and Mr Tagoma, the Japanese bureaucrat who becomes central to the plot, attacks a German agent with a fake Colt revolver. All of this leads us to doubt and question what is going on; and then we come to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel written with the aid of the I Ching, which describes a world in which America did not lose the war; though the world described is not the same as the one we recognise. Why It's On the ListOne of the great mysteries of Philip K. Dick's career is why he only ever won one of the major science fiction awards, but that was the Hugo for The Man in the High Castle. It's a wonderful book that remains one of the very best alternate histories. In 2015, The Man in the High Castle also made the jump to TV with a very well received series titles 'The Man in the High Castle.' Alternative ChoiceWe could easily swap in a number of other PKD works in here. If you want an alternative read, then we present you with UBIK, another classic and somewhat less popular PKD novel that represents all that's good about PKD.

Similar Recommendations

It's tempting to just tell you to go away and read anything by Philip K. Dick that you can lay your hands on. You won't regret it. But here's a few you should definitely check out.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the novel that Blade Runner was based on, but there's an awful lot in the novel that didn't make it into the film. It's set after World War Terminus, when radiation poisoning has killed most animals, so owning a live animal is a major social status, and most people cheat with robots that are indistinguishable from the real thing. But there are robots that are indistinguishable from humans, too, and they are making their way back to Earth where it is bounty hunter Rick Deckard's job to eliminate them.

Ubik concerns a group of psychics trapped in an explosion on the moon who consequently find themselves imprisoned in a fake reality that resembles 1930s America.

A Scanner Darkly was, Dick considered, his best novel. It tells the story of an undercover narcotics agent whose own mind is damaged by the drug he is investigating, so that he ends up investigating himself.

If you are intrigued by the alternate history of The Man in the High Castle, then there are a host of great works you need to know about. For a start there's Pavane by Keith Roberts, in which the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England and now, in the 1960s, it is a backward country held back by the power of the Church, a country in which highwaymen attack road trains, in which there are still fairies in the countryside, and in which the Inquisition still tortures any dissenters.
This is the novel in which we first encounter some of the themes and ideas that would later emerge in Slaughterhouse-Five. There are Tralfamadorians, there's the familiar resignation in the face of the inevitability of fate, there's a central character who is cut loose in time, in this case because he is caught in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Salo, the Tralfamadorian, has been trapped on Titan for two billion years since his craft broke down. In the course of the novel we discover that the entirety of human history has been manipulated by the Tralfamadorians in order to create the situation in which Malachi Constant, the richest man on earth, arrives on Titan with exactly the small part Salo needs to repair his craft. Why it's on the list: It's funny, it's clever, it's brilliantly written, and it's a key influence on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, what more do you need?
This short novel introduced an endless war between two time travelling races known, for reasons that no one can now remember, as the Snakes and the Spiders. They fight their war by changing the outcome of historic events, which is why Leiber called it the Change War. The foot soldiers in this war, human or alien, can be plucked from any moment in history. In a bubble outside time, a small group of these soldiers are gathered, not really knowing who is on the same side or who is on the other side, not really knowing which side might be good and which bad, or if it even matters any more. Having been disconnected from their own time, they have no real stake in history anyway, so when we learn that a recent skirmish has changed the outcome of the Second World War the horror for all those now caught under totalitarianism is seen to be of little concern in the grand scheme of things. Why it's on the list: The Big Time won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Later, Poul Anderson would create his own time war series, and other writers like John Brunner would write about time police, but it was here that the whole idea was set in motion.
Piper committed suicide before he could know how successful his novels would be, which is a great pity because in Little Fuzzy he had created one of the most delightful of all sf novels. The planet Zarathustra is owned by a corporation that makes a very tidy living from the sunstones mined by people like Jack Holloway. But Jack comes upon a tiny, furry creature that he calls Little Fuzzy. Having struck up a friendship, Jack comes to believe that Little Fuzzy is intelligent, which is unfortunate because if there is intelligent life on the planet the Zarathustra Corporation will lose their right to exploit it. So the novel turns on a quest to prove that Fuzzy is intelligent, with an underlying message about the importance of independence and sincerity as opposed to corporate politics. Why it's on the list: Let's face it, cats are everyone's favourite aliens, and science fiction has any number of alien beings that are really just cats. But none are quite as engaging as H. Beam Piper's Fuzzies, which is why there have been loads of sequels by other hands since Piper shot himself, most recently the “authorised reboot”, Fuzzy Nation, by John Scalzi.
If you had to name one science fiction movie that encapsulated America's national paranoia in the mid-50s it would have to be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and this is the original novel upon which that film is based. At the time, conformity seemed to fill people with dread, whether it was the idea of being swallowed by the faceless forces of bureaucracy (as in David Karp's One) or being turned into mindless slaves by a communist takeover. Finney took that dread and turned it into one of the most effective novels of the decade. Here was typical, small town America, people living dull, routine lives, when pods start to arrive from outer space. The pods give birth to perfect physical replicas of the humans, while the real people turn to dust. This, it is suggested, is just what humans do, using up resources, indigenous peoples, ecosystems, purely for their own short-term gain. When the story was made into a film, the moral was lost, but the horror remains. Why it's on the list: Finney was a competent writer of crime stories and science fiction, but on a couple of occasions (this novel and his later time travel romance, Time And Again) his work really took flight. And as the basis for one of the key science fiction films of the 50s, this novel more than earns its place on this list.
There was a period when science fiction tended to refer to the next stage in human evolution as homo superior, and one of the ways of achieving this state was through a gestalt, a number of individuals working as one. The idea is there, for instance, in The Inner Wheel by Keith Roberts, but it’s most successful expression was probably in this novel by Theodore Sturgeon. Through three linked stories, we follow the development of a gestalt, starting with a loner with telepathic abilities who begins to gather odd children around him. When he dies, a sociopath takes over the group, but in the last story an air force engineer who has been locked in an insane asylum becomes the group’s conscience, and so completes the homo gestalt. Why it’s on the list: The novel, which won the International Fantasy Award, is perhaps Sturgeon’s masterpiece, a brilliant account of how the collective outweighs the individual, and opens up new ways for human development.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it wasn't uncommon to believe that humans were just incapable of getting along peacefully with themselves or others. It's a theme ideally suited to Simak's particular style and interests and he adopted it into a sequence of linked stories that were eventually gathered together as his classic novel City. In fact, City isn't about cities at all, but rather about the abandonment of cities. In the early stories, people move away from the city, initially running away from the threat of nuclear holocaust, but gradually they come to like the isolation. In successive tales, as urban civilisation breaks down, mutants begin to emerge and dogs are given the power of speech. When a human and his faithful dog take on the temporary form of the beings on Jupiter, they discover that they prefer to be like this, and when the rest of humanity finds out about it most elect to take on the new form. Eventually, dogs are left to build their own civilisation, and tell their tales about the mythical humans. Why it's on the list: City won the International Fantasy Award, and remains one of the best-loved novels from the 1940s. Simak's elegiac tone and the rather sentimental portrayal of the dogs mean that this book remains popular up to the present.