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Best Modern Science Fiction Classics

Best SF Between the 40's and 70's That Covers Golden and New Wave Periods

What makes some SF 'great' and other SF less so? Tough call. Still, despite some disputes that sometimes amount to nitpicking, there's some kind of consensus about the books on this list. Most of them anyway. With others, you might say "Huh? Where did that come from?" Well, not everything 'generally' considered 'great' necessarily is that, and a huge amount of what's not considered 'great' actually is-and in another time and under the diktat of different literary and genre fashions, it might well have been acknowledged as such.

So, here are some 'greats'; those with lots of awards and accolades and those with fewer or even none. In some way all of these stories exhibit one or more of a number of attributes such as: great storytelling (hugely important); exerting significant influence on other literature or even culture; tackling high concepts with excellent follow-through; dealing brilliantly with the core tropes of the genre; successfully breaking or crossing genre boundaries; using SF as a medium to tell parables. These books might also be called science fiction masterworks -- or the great classics that were highly influential on the genre, covering part of the Golden Age and most of the New Wave era's of science fiction.

Note, this is a complement list to our Best Classic Science Fiction lists, which covers the strictly Golden Age period from the 40's to 60's. This list is more broad, covering the 40's to the 70's. Both lists will give you a good overview of the best of the best 'classic' science fiction works you must read.

The order of arrangement in this list is not entirely arbitrary, but by necessity it's based on the choice and personal preferences of the reviewer. Yours might, and indeed probably will, be different. That's fine, too, because we're all different, and look for different things in what we find of value and worthy of spending a portion of our lives on. Note that this Classic period covers the "tail end' of Golden Age of Science Fiction. It also encompasses entire New Wave Period of science fiction

If you want another list that covers Classics from the Golden Age (40's to 60's), check our Best Classic Science Fiction list.

You can view the crowd-ranked version of this list and vote on the entries at the bottom of this page.

A crumbling interstellar empire, rebels and space battles, a mutant warlord, and a secret base that remains hidden away for millennia. It is said that Isaac Asimov based this groundbreaking space epic on Edward Gibbons's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but really it's just a rumbustious space adventure that took all the scale and wonder of the old space operas and turned them into something far better than anyone might have expected.Originally published as a series of short stories during the 1940s, then collected as three volumes, Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation in the early 50s, the trilogy has a grandeur and a scope that has been rarely matched even today. The writing can be stodgy, but it's still a great series to read. Just don't bother with Asimov's belated prequels and sequels, which try and tie all of his Robot stories and others into the same future history, they're not worth the effort.Why It Made the List At number 6 on our list of top hard science fiction books is Foundation by Issac Asimov. Why number two? Because we couldn't have a joint number one, that's why. Many of Asimov's books would have fitted the bill, but given Foundation is part of the original foundation (sorry) of modern science fiction, we thought it the best starting point. With it's sprawling, space-opera like setting, it's focus on science and history and Asimov's classic turn of phrase, it's no wonder this novel has remained popular for decades after it was first published. Foundation takes the familiar starting point of the fall of an Empire, sets it in space and adds in that vital ingredient - hope. Mixed together, we get a soaring epic that spans both space and time. Not only is the technology realistic, but so are the characters and society. Asimov is master of both story and science, and it's evident throughout this. The best part is, this is the first in a series! So you can read even more! The Foundation Trilogy won a one-off Hugo Award as the All-Time Best Series. It probably wouldn't win a similar award today, but it is still a wonderful example of the ambition and the scope of space opera at its very best.

Books in Foundation Series (9)

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Forty years after the first of the stories that became Foundation was published in Astounding, Asimov returned to the series with a sequel, Foundation's Edge, followed by a further sequel, Foundation and Earth. After this he wrote two prequels to the trilogy, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. To be honest, they're not a patch on the original trilogy, despite the fact that Foundation's Edge won both a Hugo and a Locus Award.

If you LOVE hard science fiction, there's been a lot that stands out since Foundation. For hard science fiction that's highly regarded, check out the Ringworld series by Larry Niven. For space opera science fiction with grand ideas about alien civilizations, read A Fire Upon the Deep

You might also want to check out the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds. Both of these are not 'hard' science fiction, but some of the ideas are certainly realistic about space travel, alien civilizations, and contact.

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)

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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.

Big Planet is BIG. Really big, but with a surface gravity about equal to that of Earth. It was colonized by a whole bunch of colorful characters, ranging from rebels, misfits and criminals to weird cultists. Over the centuries they lost their technology, mainly because the planet provides few metals, and that kind-of puts a damper on the construction of WMDs and stuff like that. So, what we have is a vast array of miniature nations, some ruled by all kinds of odd social arrangements, while the majority ended up in the forms of the usual common-garden warlord-doms. With his ship sabotaged and crash-landing on the planet, Claude Glystra - who has come to fix up some of the chaos here and take care of the worst of the tyrants - is forced to start on a 40,000-mile trip to a safe Earth-enclave, pursued by agents of the very tyrant he's meant to bring to justice. And just in case you're wondering: 40,000 miles on this planet is just a skip and a hop. Why it's on the list: It's a story of a journey, with intrigues and murder along the way, as Claude Glystra's team is decimated by the enemy. Along the way, Vance invents a giddy array of landscapes, means of transport, plus a few societies that have found strange alternative ways of creating as 'society'. Arguably, the novel is a model for a plethora of other 'planet' novels, including Arrakis (Dune, #2 in this list) and Majipoor (Lord Valentine's Castle, #21 on this list). Read if you like: Jack Vance, his imagination, exquisite use of language, mordant wit and observation of human nature and its myriad quirks as expressed in the societies we create. And Big Planet is a fascinating character, who swallows up all the colonists like the insignificant gnats they are.

Books in Big Planet Series (1)

Aristotelian logic for dummies 101: "X results of necessity from Y and Z if it would be impossible for X to be false when Y and Z are true." Clear as mud? Nonetheless it's the basis for most thinking labeled as 'logical', and thus for much of science. General Semantics, a thought discipline invented by the Polish-American Alfred Korzybski, proposed that it isn't necessarily the kind of logic that leads to the determination of truth; mainly because Aristotle's assumption that all things have an 'essence' is mistaken, and therefore, since we can't actually really 'know' what X, Y and Z are, we can't reliably perform Aristotelian deductions. World of Null-A (non-Aristotelian logic) is all about the powers one can derive from stepping outside the Aristotelian way of thinking. Suitably convoluted and great fun. With sequels. Why it's on the list: Van Vogt tackled the topic of non-Aristotelian logic explicitly and with gusto. Others also, did, but usually not by making it into a major theme of a novel (e.g. Heinlein, Asimov and Herbert). Also profoundly influenced was the famous editor John Campbell, who in turn had a major influence on the development of SF in its early years. Also, for this reviewer, the book was a revelation of sorts; so maybe it'll be for you as well. Read if you like: Philosophy. Convoluted plots with people who have special powers because they think differently.

Books in Null-a Series (2)

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.

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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.

This book ranks third on this list, and let's be frank here, because everybody appreciates sex and drugs woven into an intricate story line to pep up an otherwise depressing future. A future with sanctioned drugs and bi-weekly orgies, you say? Why is this future considered to be a dystopia and not a utopia? Probably because you have no choice about dying at the ripe old age of 60. At least you'll die young, beautiful and full of health, not having known pain, ugliness or hardship. Huxley's Brave New World portrays a hedonistic society (sans the hindrance of pesky moral repercussions) called the "World State", controlled by "World controllers" who ensure stability through a five tiered caste system, and ration a drug called Soma to members of every caste, so that no one ever feels pain or remains unhappy. Long term relationships are discouraged, babies are "decanted" (born in test tubes), and the idea of parents and families is disgusting. Humans are conditioned pre and post-natally to believe certain truths a pleasant way of describing society being brainwashed. Brave New World also enjoys the honor of being one of the most banned books for "negative activities", which we can only assume means all of the fun things in the book. And on this note, it leaves us with the moral that if you take away all of the unpleasantness from life, how can you know what is pleasurable and enjoy it? This novel has something to appeal to everyone: science fiction fans, dystopia/utopia fans, car enthusiasts, drug addicts, polygamists, polyamorous people, and Shakespeare snobs.

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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.

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In the 1960s, when overpopulation was a common worry for the future, it was often said that the entire population of the world could stand on the Isle of Wight. John Brunner imagines a future in which it would take a much bigger island to accommodate the world's population.The book is a kaleidoscopic account of life in this bustling, busy, crowded world. To capture the clamour of it all, Brunner adopted the technique that John Dos Passos used in his great modernist trilogy, USA. So, in the sections headed "Context" we find newspaper headlines, classified ads, extracts from books that give us an idea of all the different things going on in the world. The sections headed "The Happening World" are just a mass of single sentences: a line of description, an overheard remark, part of a conversation, all the noise of the world that is going on around us all the time. "Tracking with Close-Ups" gives us brief glimpses of what minor characters are doing, or a glimpse of events away from the main action. Finally the main storyline is contained in the sections headed "Continuity".Throughout it all we get a dramatic sense of the impact of high population. Society is fracturing, eugenics legislation is being introduced, extremist politics is on the rise, there are shortages and wars and terrorist atrocities and advances in bioengineering. At the heart of it all, a big multinational corporation is in the process of taking over a small African country, while an American spy is investigating a technological breakthrough in South East Asia.No work of science fiction before this had been so inventive, so exciting, so engaged with the modern world. And it is still a damned good book that feels every bit as fresh and as new as it ever did. Why It Made the ListThis novel made John Brunner the first ever British writer to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it also won the BSFA Award and the French Prix Tour-Apollo. Even today it is still being acclaimed for its originality and its dazzling accomplishment. It remains one of the great sf novels.

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Stand on Zanzibar was the first of four novels that Brunner wrote that changed the way we looked at science fiction, because they presented crowded, clotted worlds where the background was as important and as fully realised as anything in the foreground.

The Jagged Orbit is set in a future America where racial tensions are at breaking point, and a major corporation is busy trying to sell arms to both sides at once, fomenting war in order to improve their business. It won the BSFA Award.

The Sheep Look Up is another dystopia, this time concerned with damage to the environment. At a time when corporations effectively control the government of the United States, pollution has got so bad that it results in poor health, poor sanitation, poor food supply and, eventually, civil unrest.

The Shockwave Rider is recognised as one of the ancestors of cyberpunk, it is also the novel that introduced the idea of a computer virus, though in the novel it is called a "worm". It is a novel about future shock, in which a programming genius uses his computer skills to go on the run in a world dominated by computer surveillance.

For other novels that confront issues of overpopulation, you should also check out The World Inside by Robert Silverberg, in which people live in three kilometre high tower blocks where order is only maintained by everyone sharing everything, including sex (it is considered a crime to refuse any invitation for sex). It's a brilliant picture of a very disturbing world.

Another classic of overpopulation is Make Room! Make Room!by Harry Harrison (which was filmed as Soylent Green). It's set in a future New York that is so crowded that water and food are in ever shorter supply, people have to share single room apartments, and theft and rioting are daily events.

Another novel that makes brilliant use of John Dos Passos's structure is 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Using extracts from science journals, political journalism, history books and more, Robinson creates an extraordinarily vivid picture of everyday life three centuries from now when humanity has spread out across the solar system but the Earth is suffering from ecological collapse. The immediacy of the technique really makes it feel like we are there in the city that rolls around Mercury on rails, or in the hollowed-out asteroids that travel between the planets, or when long-extinct animals are returned to earth. 2312 won the Nebula Award.

The apocalypse here is kind of personal. The world's just fine to start with, but... From one moment to the next all the women disappear from the world of men—and all the men from the world of women—which in some instances would have made for interesting sitcoms. But The Disappearance is not about eliciting cheap laughs. In the aftermath of the disappearance, civilization in both worlds, the male and female, disintegrates: physically, spiritually, socially. Wylie focuses on one affected couple to perform a profound analysis of the fundamental and indispensable dependence of the sexes on each other, in the process revealing the absurd way in which almost all societies view male-female relationships; and highlighting how the two genders and their relationship lie at the heart of our humanity; at a level far more basic and fundamental than 'culture'. Why its on the list: The apocalyptic event affects every single person alive immediately. A bit like Day of the Triffids, where (almost) everybody suddenly goes blind. Except that here the event opens everybody's eyes to something they've been blind about before. We rarely see the obvious, since we're so habituated to it. This may be the most explicit story on this list involving the lifting of a cognitive veil. Ratings: Grimness: 2, Bizarreness: 2, Hope: 5, Fun-factor: 3.

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The Sapir-Worf (no relation to Klingons!) hypothesis basically states that the structure of language influences the way we see the world, because it defines how we structure propositional thought. It therefore will also influence our actions. The theory is not without its critics, but it's true anyway. It's not too far a stretch to conceive the possibility that an appropriately-constructed language can be used as a weapon. Teach it to someone and it might make him do anything, including turning him into a traitor. 'Babel-17' is a weapon-language, and the novel explores its use in this intriguing futuristic thriller. Why it's on the list: Because this mid-1906s novel, next to Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, this is probably the most impressive fictional exploration of the consequences if the Sapir-Worf hypothesis were true—which it is. It's also a cautionary tale, because, as Orwell has pointed out again and again, our very own language is constantly twisted and abused in order to make lies appear like the truth and truth look like a lie. It's all the stranger then that this work isn't getting the attention it deserves. Read if you like: Intrigue and skullduggery in a rattling good yarn, that tackles a profound philosophical subject.
In a move that most of us would think is unprecedented in the science fiction world of famous authors, Larry Niven has done something unheard of: admitted to an error in his plot. Niven wrote, 'If you own a first paperback edition of Ringworld, it's the one with the mistakes in it. It's worth money.' Louis Gridley Wu celebrates his 200th birthday at the start of the novel. It's 2850 AD, so this age isn't particularly unusual. But as the vampires in Ann Rice's world found, when one gets to this age, one gets rather fucking bored with life and its experiences. Louis decides to take a trip beyond Known Spaceship on his own. Nessus, a Pierson's Puppeteer, offers him a spot on an exploration voyage with Speak (a Kzin) and a young human female, Teela Brown. They travel to Ringworld, an artificial ring about one million miles world and the diameter of Earth's orbit.They unsuccessfully try to contact the Ringworld but their ship is disabled by its defense system. With important systems on their ship destroyed, the crew has to find out how to get back into space as well as explore Ringworld. Forced to land due to sickness, they encounter Ringworld's indigenous people who seem to be human and living in a primitive human manner. They mistakenly think the crew is the creators of the Ring, treating them as gods. Proving it's never good to get in with fundamentalists, the Ringworlders go a bit feral. If you think things are already intense, plots, secrets and machinations are revealed and inter-species love happens. This is definitely one of the most intriguing space opera novels written and well worth your time. And did we mention that Ringworld won the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards?

Books in Ringworld Series (4)

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Niven wrote three sequels to Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, which is the best of them, The Ringworld Throne and Ringworld's Children, but as usual none of them have the thrill or the sense of wonder that the original generated. There's also a bunch of related novels that Niven co-wrote with Edward M. Lerner, but unless you're a completist you can probably leave these alone.

However, some of the earlier Known Space works, such as The World of Ptaavs, Protector and the collection Neutron Star are well worth reading.

However, our Alternative Choice is the first novel Niven co-wrote with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye. This is one of the great stories of first contact, a big, rambling space opera full of twists and sudden discoveries that will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through a long book. An encounter with an alien craft sends a human expedition to the sun known as the Mote, where they discover a curious race of technologically advanced aliens who, at first, seem very peaceful. Slowly, however, we discover the devastatingly violent secret that lies behind this fa�§ade.

If you love the idea of the Ringworld, you should also try Orbitsville by Bob Shaw. The Ringworld is essentially a slice taken out of a Dyson Sphere, but Orbitsville is a full Dyson Sphere. The story, which won the BSFA Award, and its two sequels, Orbitsville Departure and Orbitsville Judgement, concern the mystery of a habitable shell completely surrounding a star, and what it might mean for the humans who discover it.

First novel in the Riverworld series. Along the winding river valley in a place somewhere no on Earth or maybe not even in this universe, people (dead people) awake, bald as eggs, at a physiological age of 25, un-aging (except for those who dies before 25, who'll age to that point and then stop) and mostly immortal. Nourishment is supplied through a process that is at once simple and yet gives rise to an unexpected number of social behaviorisms, making it clear that what motivates human beings is vastly more complex than mere nourishment. Throughout the cycle of novels in this series, we observe the development of various social configurations and follow the individual adventures of protagonists and antagonists (sometimes hard to distinguish) alike. The rationale behind what's happening here is eventually revealed, and unsurprisingly involves aliens with their own clever plans and tricks. Why it's on the list: An amazing mealange of science, post-life mythology, speculation about the nature of the 'soul', and browsing through human history by using and abusing historical personages. The novel was awarded the Hugo in 1972. There was an aborted TV series and a long movie as well. The novel's subjects bear a resemblance to Seahorse in the Sky (#17 on this list), but Farmer and Cooper have very different takes on the subjects they deal with. Read if you like: Speculations about the nature of the science of the 'soul'. Aliens messing with our minds like we do with rats in mazes.
While we associate Clarke with stories about, or set in, space, this one's set underwater in the 21st century. Oceans are fenced off like fields and whales are cattle. Wardens control their migrations; and Walter Franklin, PTSD sufferer after a traumatizing event while in space, becomes one of them. Fearsome giant creatures of the deep play the role of wolves; and there seems to be something much worse and frightening lurking down there as well. After a while, Franklin comes to doubt the righteousness of this type of farming through his increasing awareness of cetacean intelligence. Why it's on the list: Clarke, in his novels. always focused more on the external world and the concepts than the characters. This one here is an exception, with Walter and his friend Don being far more deeply-realized characters than he's created anywhere else. Also, the book leaves us with a disturbing thought. Suppose 'advanced' aliens were to come to Earth and judge us by the way in which we treat our fellow creatures, and especially 'intelligent' ones. (Think 'scientific whaling' or the mass-killing of dolphins by certain nations in Asia as well as Scandinavia.) Suppose that were used to assess how we ought to be treated Doesn't make one feel too comfortable, does it? Read if you like: Cetaceans. Stories involving the seas and its wonders and perils.
An expedition to Mars is lost. Twenty five years later, a second expedition finds there is one survivor of the first expedition, Valentine Michael Smith, who was raised by Martians. Returning reluctantly to Earth, Smith finds himself at the centre of a variety of political and religious disputes. But he brings with him Martian philosophy and wisdom, along with astonishing psychic abilities. In time he founds his own Church of All Worlds, which brings Martian religious ideas, language and psychic abilities to humanity. But this brings its own dangers.Stranger in a Strange Land, which won a Hugo Award for Best Novel, was one of the most influential science fiction novels of the 1960s. The philosophical ideas that Heinlein expressed here, particularly the idea of grokking, was taken up particularly by the hippy movement.
This is an important book in the sub-genre of military fiction, and the first published novel in what ended up as a kind of future-history known as the 'Childe Cycle', proving yet again that future-history creation seems to be like an occupational disease among a lot of SF writers. The eponymous Dorsai inhabit a resource-poor planet and earn their foreign income by providing other worlds with high-quality mercenaries. (Talk about planetary specialization!) The novel follows Donal Graeme, who is a kind of super-dude, with major earning potential. His career is close to meteoric as he breezes through subsequent engagements. And there's a good reason for that, because Donal is not just a good soldier, but possesses other talents as well. Why it's at this place on the list: Hugo nominated in 1960, but losing out to Starship Troopers, this novel and its prequels and sequels are a major contribution to the military SF subgenre. Dickson is a great storyteller and the novel is a quick and easy read, as are the others. Still, I liked this one best, as is so often the case with novels that have before-and-afters attached to them. Read if you like: Military SF.
A.K.A. The Plague From Space or The Jupiter Plague. The explorer ship Pericles returns from Jupiter. The single surviving crewman is infected with a deadly plague that has the potential to wipe out life on Earth. The plague soon starts spreading, despite all attempts to quarantine it, because it's carried by birds. Bird flue. Something like that. Don't want to give away more of the plot, because it would spoil it. Besides, its not terribly complicated. This is a small snazzy thriller, written with Harrison's consummate skill for writing fast-paced action stuff; with good characterizations. Short and snappy, as a lot of novels from that period were—unlike today where anything under 200k words seems to be considered to be unfit for serious consideration. Why it's on the list: Because it's much more fun that Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, which deals with a similar topic and might have been on this list if it hadn't been for this book here. And, let's face it, for completeness's sake you've got to have a plague-from-space-intended-to-wipe-us-out novel on this list. It's the storytelling that makes The Jupiter Legacy 'great'. It focuses on characters rather than procedure. Some of the technological elements may look antiquated (the books was first published in 1966), but it doesn't matter. In case you're interested, McDevitt's The Hercules Text tackles a similar subject from another angle. Read if you like: Harry Harrison, who also penned the Deathworld series. Apparently-unstoppable-epidemic tales. Great entertainment.

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Like his later novel, Transit, this here is a story of—what looks like—an abduction of a bunch of humans by aliens (in this instance from the interior of a transatlantic plane). After the abduction, the abductees awake in coffin-like capsules. When they emerge from unconsciousness, they find themselves in what looks like a simple movie-set town, which includes a store with food supplies. It's surrounded by a vast expanse of grass and that's that. Though the abductees are from different nationalities, they find that they understand each other perfectly. Not knowing what to do, they hang around for a while, then some go off to explore. They find a fantasy world populated by knights, primitive warriors and other creatures, including unpleasant giant metal spiders. Why are they here? That's what they must find out; as well as how they'll survive this strange environment. And how will they cope with the final revelation about who they really are? Why it's on the list: Alien abduction story! Aliens experimenting on people like we do with rats in mazes. A bit like #12 on this list, but all wrapped up into one book, rather than extending over a whole series. Read if you like: Alien abduction stories. SF involving the solving of riddles.
Probably the most significant of Piers Anthony's SF (he did mostly fantasy). The Macroscope floats in orbit; it's like a super Hubble Space Telescope, only that it doesn't use light, but particles called 'macrons', which allow the device to act as a telescope with no distortion, basically arbitrary resolution. Better even, it can see through matter (unlike light), can be focused on anything at any distance, and the information is transmitted instantaneously. The ultimate snooping device, that would give the NSA and its ilk everywhere instant hard-ons. Needless to say, that's what the device is being used for—plus a fig-leaf of science, to keep things respectable. Since macrons can be artificially generated, they can also be used for instant communication. And it looks like someone's communicating all right! There's a powerful macron signal pervading space that carries information, which, when deciphered by a sufficiently advanced intelligence results in driving them insane. Makes you want to stay dumb! Why it's on the list: This is an underestimated classic, dealing with the power of information and knowledge, and what they can do to the minds receiving them. It constructs an intriguing universe, based on a simple premise (that something like a macroscope can exist), and weaves an engaging and thrilling story around it. It's packed with ideas and driven by a small cast of believable and well-drawn characters. Hugo nominated in 1970. Read if you like: Space stories. Imaginative SF. A dash of romance. Reading just for fun.
On the rocky planet Aerlith, humans have managed to gain a spotty foothold. They live in the valleys with fertile soil and fight occasional battles for territory and general dominance. Said battles prominently involve the semi-intelligent 'dragons', who are specialized for particular combative functions through breeding programs that have been conducted since time immemorial. At regular intervals, a spaceship with aliens, called 'grephs', appears, abducts humans with impunity because of their superior technology, and takes them away breed their own warriors who fulfill a similar function to the dragons. The time for the next greph visit is nigh, and Joaz Banbeck is about to marshal his colorful array of vicious dragons; not only to fight his rival from a neighboring valley, Ervis Carcolo, but also to face down the grephs and show them a thing or two. Why it's at this place on the list: It's only this far down on the list because it's a novella. But it's a tight story that not only rattles a lot of 'social' cages, but also tackles a whole bunch of moral questions and races along at breakneck pace. The irony of the two-sided slave-warrior breeding programmes on both sides of the conflict (the dragons are custom-bred descendants of a few captured grephs from previous invasions) is supreme. The story is proof, if it were needed, that a good writer doesn't need a tome to tell an involving tale. Hugo for best short story in 1963. Read if you like: Jack Vance, or if you need an introduction to his work, depth, enchanting use of language and mordant commentary on human nature and society.
The films of Sam Fuller were seen as so visceral, they were banned from many municipalities. Haldeman’s novel The Forever War is the science fictional equivalent of Fuller’s films, and carries so much more weight. The violence is frank, clear, unambiguous. The story of William Mandella and his travel through time ad battlefields is brutal at times, and the use of concepts like post-hypnotic suggestion leading to massacres, makes the book a strong commentary against war. Haldeman’s own Vietnam experience is evident throughout, as William Mandella is nearly as autobiographical a character as Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim. The way Haldeman writes of the thousand year-long war is much like he would write of the Vietnam, and he pulls no punches.  He questions not only the reasoning and effect of war, but the very stresses that humanity carries within it that we believe leads to warfare. In The Forever War, there is brutality, but in the end, it is brutality that is screaming at the reader that we must never look away, and never accept as reasonable. Why it’s on the list Many vets consider this to be the most direct and honest portrayal of war ever, genre or not.

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Some years later, Haldeman wrote two other novels linked to The Forever War, though only one is a direct sequel.

The sequel is Forever Free, in which Mandella, with his wife and children, is now a colonist on the icy world of Middle Finger. When they try to use time dilation effects to escape the post-human hive mind known as Man, things go wrong, and they end up returning to a depopulated planet, meet an alien shapeshifter that has coexisted on Earth throughout history, and end up in a face to face meeting with God. It is nowhere near as good as the original, but it is interesting as a sequel.

Much better, but only tangentially connected to the original, is Forever Peace, which also won the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. This is another novel which argues that war is an aberration, but in this case it is a war here on Earth fought by armies of robotic "soldier boys" who are controlled by plugged in operators. However, it is discovered that being plugged in like this cures all warlike impulses, so that the very act of fighting the war ends war.

If you love the military action (and suit to suit combat) of Forever War, read the classic Starship Troopers by Heinlein. While Forever War is an argument against war (and specifically, the Vietnam War), Starship Troopers is the celebration of all things war. Both have a shit load of action. And if you want a novel that straddles the middle between Starship Troopers and Forever War, then give John Steakley's Armor a good read.

For a somewhat different take on future wars, you should also check out Old Man's War by John Scalzi in which it is old people who have already lived productive lives who are recruited to fight and are then given enhanced bodies. But this is still an anti-war novel, the characters are psychologically damaged by their experiences and it is far from clear that the humans are fighting on the right side.

First novel in the 'Majipoor' series, comprising a total of 11 novels and novellas. Majipoor is, one might argue, direct offspring of Vance's Big Planet (#3 in this list); a large planet with Earth gravity, settled by a whole bunch of alien races and humans for millennia. (Looks like there's a lot of alien species needing exactly the same atmospheric composition as human do. Strange, that.) There's also the indigenes, who were invaded several times, didn't like it much and still don't. Who can blame them? Unlike Big Planet, Majipoor has a governmental structure, combining an uneasy arrangement between the various races. That, and the various characteristics and abilitiessometimes psychicof the inhabitants, make for a colorful matrix of interactions and potential and real conflicts. Valentine is a wandering amnesiac, who only knows his name, finally starts to recall that he is the Coronal Valentine, the supreme executive ruler of Majipoor. So, why is he where he is, and who put him there? Why it's on the list: Silverberg is one of the better world-building authors, and this series is his magnum opus. Awards: Hugo nominated 1981; Locus 1981. Read if you like: Seriously complex worldbuilding SF with a good underpinning plot. Large series, that keep you reading for a while.
Its anticipated to zip close past Earth, so they send to a space-mission to visit it, and then end up realizing that the damn thing is going to hit us after all; which it does, breaking up into a bunch of pieces that pretty much trash everything. The ensuing panic only aggravates the disaster, with politician and the military superpowers figuring prominently in the cluster-screwups that complete the job of the original impact. The book has a huge cast of characters, though it revolves around the few whose stories extend from the very beginning to the end. Having been battered and nuked back into the stone-age, it's clear survival for humans is not just skill but also a matter of random luck. Most of our past-times, often considered signs of high culture and civilization, are revealed as basically meaningless, with only science remaining as something that might bring us back from this dismal brink. One might see the now-irrelevance of the legal profession as a positive outcome of sorts. Even so, there's no final conclusion as to what is likely to happen, though the book ends on an optimistic note. Why it's on the list: Very cool and believable post-apocalypse; thrillingly told. Ratings: Grimness: 4, Bizarreness: 1, Hope: 3, Fun-factor: 4.
If this novel were written in the paranoid political and social climate of today, it's doubtful that it would be published. Its herowho tells the story in the first person, as Zelazny's heroes often doafter all used to be a terrorist. But then again, he did it for 'us', against the Vegan invaders who have taken possession of the Earth, and so maybe he's one of the good guys. Conrad, as he calls himself (though he's also Karaghiosis, a trickster-type figure from Greek folklore) is a bit of a demi-god, what with being immortal and having been kicking around for quite a long time. And now the future fate of the Earthwith all its pathetic 4 million-odd Earthling survivors after the nuclear waris in his hands. Conrad, with the help of his beloved wife, Cassandra, cooks up a desperate scheme to force the aliens to leave Earth alone. And its not only the Vegans he has to deal with, but some of his old terrorist buddies from long ago as well. They have their own agendas, that might well destroy any hope for Conrad to succeed with his devious plan. Why it's on the list: It's one of those amazing, short but totally gripping, Zelazny tales. It also won a Hugo in 1965. And if that isn't enough, it also contains the most harebrained scheme to defeat the invaders' intentions, making best use of their weakness. Read if you like: Roger Zelazny. Which you should.
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.

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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.

The Wanderer