It’s been a couple of months since I last regaled you with my musings. I’ve been fairly busy giving lectures, marking assignments, and in gluttonous consumption of numerous books. Along the way, I’ve grown a budding hipster beard and listened to far too much classical music. Which was time well spent, methinks.
But I return with an interesting subject: who are my favourite science fiction authors? This list is a purely subjective exercise; it includes those authors that I love reading for pleasure, not those that I find critically engaging. There’s some New Wave authors, for example, that I think have written some of the most poignant social commentary of the twentieth century, but they aren’t necessarily the same authors that are my guilty pleasures.
To clarify further, the authors that made it onto this list have not just written one or two books that I’ve enjoyed, but numerous books. I could have included quite a few more, such as Alfred Bester, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Nancy Kress, or Connie Willis, but I just haven’t read enough of their novels to justify their inclusion.
So, in no particular order…
There’s a good reason Herbert George is often identified as the father of SF. The Time Machine is still one of the greatest conceptual novels ever written, and I’d happily argue that it is the most influential SF novel. It’s not just the time travel itself – the rigidification of Victorian social structure into an evolutionary schema is genius. And the scene on the beach is one of the most haunting images in all of SF. No wonder that the genre is full of terminal beaches, from J.G. Ballard to William Gibson.
And it’s not just The Time Machine. The period from 1895 to 1901 reads like a list of masterpieces: The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, The First Men in the Moon. Each of these titles pioneers a concept or a theme that has since become a core trope of SF. And they are good books. Above all else, Wells was a good storyteller.
Even his weaker novels, such as The Food of the Gods, contain more potent social commentary than most modern SF novels. And his short stories are still incredible, each one containing the kernel of an idea that would be expanded upon in later SF. My favourite of his short fiction has always been “The Valley of the Blind” and “The New Accelerator.”
Oh, let’s face it, the Robot detective novels are just awesome. There’s something incredibly fun about pairing a human detective – Elijah Baley – with a robot partner, R. Daneel. A lot of the drama in The Caves of Steel comes from Baley’s mistrust and frustrations with Daneel, but they are still able to solve the crime in the end. And the Three Laws of Robotics are always upheld, despite Asimov inventing countless scenarios that seem to violate them.
The Foundation novels are also pretty enjoyable. They’re classic Space Operas, and Asimov has a style of writing that makes them hard to put down. The whole “science” of psychohistory is also fascinating – Asimov presents it in such a way that it’s hard to believe it’s not credible science.
Some of his short stories remain among the best in the genre. “Nightfall” features that perfect sense-of-wonder ending, and the stories collected in I, Robot are still incredibly influential. It’s hard to emphasise Asimov’s importance without reverting to hyperbole, but his impact on the whole science of robotics shouldn’t be underestimated.
In the 1960’s, Ballard was the champion of the British New Wave. The two novels that have really caught my attention were The Drowned World and The Burning World (later retitled as The Drought).
Ballard’s conception of landscapes really defines these novels. The Drowned World features a submerged London, where the return to a primordial landscape triggers a corresponding reversion in the psychology of its characters. And The Drought has that fantastic sequence where farmers use modified brooms to sweep water along channels in the desert. Incredible.
His short stories are also pretty amazing. “The Terminal Beach” is a poignant response to the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and an excellent contemplation of the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War.
Stapledon inherited the crown of British scientific romance from H.G. Wells, and he even manages to surpass Wells’s grand visions of the cosmos.
He was writing in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the world was slipping into the darkness of World War Two, and this descent can be felt throughout each of his novels. Yet his often bleak visions of the future are tempered with faint glimmers of hope. Mankind might be doomed to death, but our spirit will live on.
His finest works are Last and First Men and the incomparable Star Maker. The first of these novels charts the future of human evolution for the next two billions years, as we evolve through eighteen different iterations of the human species. But even that time period is but a brief paragraph in Star Maker, which ambitiously chronicles the evolution and history of the universe itself. A lesser author wouldn’t succeed at such a challenge, but Stapledon creates one of the most memorable visions of the cosmos. He somehow manages to capture the importance of love and community at the same time as he dispassionately describes the extinction of whole galaxies. Bravo, sir!
Fahrenheit 451 is counted as one of the greatest dystopian works of the twentieth century, yet it’s often overshadowed by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Huxley’s Brave New World. And what a pity! Bradbury’s novel is perhaps the most pertinent of all dystopias to our techno-saturated twenty-first century. A world where books are banned in favour of iPod-like “seashells”, and television dictates our consumer habits. It was a powerful statement in the McCarthy era, and it continues to stand as a statement against censorship.
The Martian Chronicles is also an impressive achievement, a collection of short stories that Bradbury had published in the late 1940’s that is tied together as an abstract history of the human invasion of Mars. The repeated encounters between humans and Martians are quite haunting. Don’t be fooled by Bradbury’s elegiac tone – the novel tackles the pressing issues of nuclear war and imperialism. Well done, Bradbury!
I have to admit that part of my love for Bradbury isn’t based on his SF novels, but his other works. Dandelion Wine is a lovely tribute to summer and the innocence of childhood. It makes me nostalgic for a time that I have never experienced.
Also, there’s this.
Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is one of those authors who is always controversial. His initial success in the mid-80’s was tempered considerably after he spoke out against same-sex marriage and homosexuality. This led a lot of people to boycott the recent movie adaptation of Ender’s Game.
Although I certainly don’t agree with Card’s views on sexuality (or politics, or religion, or life in general…), it can’t be denied that Ender’s Game was an incredible influence on the genre in the 1980’s. His prose style is engaging and witty, and his protagonists are likeable. Poor Ender suffers through so much. It’s a space-age moral fable that will hopefully outlive its author’s rather parochial views.
The sequels in the Ender series suffer under the laws of diminishing returns, but Ender’s Shadow is particularly worthwhile for its focus on another Battle School genius, Bean.
I love Adam Roberts. I read Yellow Blue Tibia back in 2009 and was just blown away by how funny it was. And what a concept! Russian science fiction writers dreaming up Chernobyl and the Challenger disaster. Very cool.
I’ve since bought every one of his novels as soon as they’re released. And they haven’t been disappointing. By Light Alone is a stunning social commentary on how detached we’re becoming as a society, and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea revisits Verne’s classic novel with an awesome twist. Each of his novels examines a different sub-genre of SF, meaning that there’s an incredible diversity of style throughout his oeuvre. I can’t use enough superlatives to describe how much I enjoy these books.
Roberts’s covers are always aesthetically pleasing. Look at this stained-glass tribute on the cover of Jack Glass – beautiful!
Arthur C. Clarke
Reading this list, you’ll be able to discern a strong tradition of British scientific romance. Wells, Stapledon, and now Clarke. There’s something intrinsically appealing about the scientific romance – the meditations on evolutionary possibilities coupled with the vast time spans. None of these authors were famous for their characters – except maybe Wells with Moreau or the diabolical Invisible Man – but it’s their ideas which define their novels.
I’ve written previously that Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first SF novel I ever read. But almost every single one of his novels has influenced me in some way. Childhood’s End has a spectacular vision of the future that has been echoed in countless “first contact” films. The City and the Stars deserves to be better recognised as one of the precursors of The Matrix, featuring a saviour who is born in a computer. And the sense of mystery in Rendezvous with Rama is almost unparalleled in SF.
Even Clarke’s earlier novels, which were like propaganda pieces for the British Interplanetary Society, are still eminently readable. They might be optimistic visions of the Space Age, but they’re usually grounded in real physics, with the characters struggling to assert human dominance over the implacable reality of space.
Brian Aldiss has referred to Wyndham’s novels as “cosy catastrophes”, and there’s no better label for their unique brand of British disaster stories. There’s something so comfortable in reading about these apocalyptic scenarios – the world might be falling apart, but the characters seem strangely removed from any sense of danger. And, above all else, they remain irrevocably British.
The Day of the Triffids is probably the best known of his work, but all of his novels are worth a read. The Kraken Wakes is a tale of alien invasion from beneath the waves; The Midwich Cuckoos features those creepy alien children made famous in The Village of the Damned. And The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic Labrador, is a poignant statement about what it means to be different.
By the time Wyndham wrote Chocky (1968), his narrative powers were waning. But it’s still an interesting read, and one that has inspired countless imitations.
Peter F. Hamilton
There’s a simple reason I haven’t been updating my blog much lately. Once I pick up one of Hamilton’s novels, I don’t really want to stop reading. They’re my favourite guilty pleasure.
Hamilton’s novels are pure space opera – vast, sprawling empires and enormous spaceships. Although The Night’s Dawn Trilogy is probably his most famous, my personal favourite is the Commonwealth Saga / Void Trilogy. A fun blend of crime fiction and SF.
Vonnegut is the only entry on this list where I have deliberately avoided some of his books – I want to always live in a world where there are still new Vonnegut novels waiting to be read.
His novels feature not only biting political satire, but some pretty original SF concepts. Cat’s Cradle is an examination of ethics of the scientists behind doomsday weapons, while Slaughterhouse-Five uses time travel as a plot device to facilitate its experimental narrative structure.
It’s his prose style that holds particular appeal for me – his novels appear to have been written in a flurry of thought, as if Vonnegut just wrote down his stream-of-conscious. But Vonnegut has revealed that each of his sentences has been meticulously crafted, with his texts undergoing numerous drafts. His novels, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five, should be on every high-school reading list.