With literature playing a pivotal role in Into the Unknown as we chart the evolution of science fiction throughout the decades, we wanted to create a reading list to help you begin your journey into the exhibition.
To help us, we called on publisher Gollancz to share their top ten key science fiction novels. And keep an eye out for several of the titles below in Into the Unknown.
Want to start an argument? Ask two or more science fiction fans to name the top ten best science fiction books. That was more-or-less the task the Barbican set for the Gollancz editorial team: come up with a reading list of ten key SF novels. So we discussed it. And we had an argument. Then we discussed it some more and decided that the only way to resolve our conflict was to treat it like Captain Kirk treated the Kobayashi Maru. That’s right: we cheated.
So here is the Gollancz team’s list of the ten – ten-ish – essential SF novels . . .
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hard to leave off as it’s arguably the first modern science fiction novel; certainly, if you define ‘science fiction’ as being fiction that cannot exist without the science element, it’s difficult to think of a better, earlier exemplar.
What to read next: you could go further back to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Thomas More’s Utopia, or even the Epic of Gilgamesh, but for our money, Frankenstein lit the fuse on modern SF as a recognisable genre.
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
Not quite the first alien invasion novel but certainly the most famous (and probably still the best), and it does no harm to Wells’ reputation as a prophet; for example, in his Martian heat rays the earliest concept of the laser can be found. One could choose pretty much any of Wells’ books from this era – or the works of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs – but The War of the Worlds remains the gold standard.
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
If you’re looking to expand your intellectual horizons and experience some of SF’s fabled ‘sense of wonder’, you could do a lot worse than read this early Clarke novel concerning nothing less than the ultimate destiny of the human race.
What to read next: for an alternative take on humanity’s future are Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ books and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and a book that deserved more attention than it received when published in 2000: Janine Ellen Young’s Bridge.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Before Dune, the ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ was pretty much always physics. Dune approached the field largely from an ecological viewpoint and Herbert’s scientific rigour made his Fremen one of the most believable societies in modern SF. Dune is a hugely influential book that always finds itself in the mix when lists of this sort are being compiled.
What to read next: if you enjoy the space opera elements of Dune, with its great houses plotting against each other, you should explore Lois McMaster Bujold’s acclaimed Vorkosigan Saga (Bujold has won more Hugo Awards for best novel than anyone bar Heinlein), and for sheer scale and brilliance of concept, do yourself the favour of reading Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels.
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
A haunting work of climate change SF written thirty years before most people had even heard of Al Gore, this is one of the earlier works of British SF that would come to be known as the New Wave.
What to read next: Octavia Butler’s acclaimed Parable series is also worth reading on this theme – the first volume, The Parable of the Sower, was shortlisted for the Nebula Award for best novel in 1995, and the second, The Parable of the Talents, went one better, winning in 2000. In fact, the post-apocalypse theme is quite a crowded one and there are a great many works of extremely high quality from which to choose, but sticking with the climate change leitmotif we’ll also recommend George Turner’s 1988 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner, The Sea and Summer.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Quite simply: a masterpiece. This is a book that changed SF; it is, in and of itself, a brilliant tale of an emissary from the stars attempting to understand a less scientifically-developed world, but beyond that remains one of the best examinations of gender roles in modern literature. It won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel.
What to read next: readers wanting to further explore gender would be rewarded by also reading Joanna Russ’s The Female Man or Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, while those who would like another take on the dilemmas facing an advanced visitor to a more primitive society should seek out Soviet writers Arkady & Boris Strugatsky’s Hard to be a God.
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Speaking of the Soviet Union’s pre-eminent SF writers, this tale of the aftermath of an alien visitation is regarded as one of the great works of non-Anglophone SF. It was the inspiration for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cult film Stalker, and is currently being adapted for television by Sony Pictures TV.
What to read next: other works of translated SF worth seeking out include Cixin Liu’s Hugo-winner The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), Pierre Boulle’s La Planete des Singes (the source text behind The Planet of the Apes) and of course, Stanislaw Lem’s extraordinary Solaris.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers might have been the book that started the military SF subgenre, but The Forever War by Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman is far and away the smartest, most humane work in the area.
What to read next: those looking to read further are, frankly, spoilt for choice; among many, many others, you could try the already-mentioned Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, Gordon R. Dickson’s ‘Dorsai’ books, Elizabeth Moon’s ‘Vatta’s War’ series, David Weber’s Honor Harrington sequence or Walter Jon William’s ‘Dread Empire’s Fall’ series.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Gibson might not have coined the phrase ‘cyberpunk’ (that was Bruce Bethke) and Neuromancer might not have been the first cyberpunk novel (many point to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but we think you can probably go further back to the works of Alfred Bester) but Neuromancer was certainly the book that sparked the Cyberpunk revolution and pushed the subgenre to the forefront of the field. Now more than 30 years old but, as we say on the back of our new edition, Gibson’s noir narrative still glitters like chrome in the shadows.
What to read next: looking for more cyberpunk? Then jack in your deck and surf towards Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (as mentioned above), Pat Cadigan’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner Synners or Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, to name a few.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
One of the great SF dystopias. Winner of the first Arthur C. Clarke Award and shortlisted for both the Nebula Award and the Booker Prize, The Handmaid’s Tale is powerful proof that SF is at its best when it tries to function not as prophecy but as warning. Although Atwood has occasionally angered the SF community by insisting, against all evidence, that The Handmaid’s Tale is not SF, there is no denying its important place in the field.
What to read next: The Handmaid’s Tale can serve as a jumping-off point for many different areas, from the religious-themed SF of Walter M. Miller, Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz to the infertility-based future of P.D. James’s The Children of Men or the repressive future regime of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451.
So, there’s our selection of ten key science fiction novels. Yes, we’ve kept our thumb on the scales to a certain extent by including extra reading in each case…so technically not ten. But at least we gave you more than you bargained for, rather than less. As dishonesty goes, we think that’s rather altruistic.
Join our Penguin Classics Book Club throughout Into the Unknown as we explore A Clockwork Orange, Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau and 1984
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June–1 September
Gollancz is the oldest specialist SF & Fantasy publisher in the UK. Founded in 1927 and with a continuous SF publishing programme dating back to 1961, it is home to a galaxy of award-winning and bestselling authors. Through its long-running SF and Fantasy Masterworks programme, and major digital initiative the SF Gateway, it has one of the largest ranges of SF and Fantasy of any publisher in the world.