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The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time

The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time

Science fiction books have, throughout history, enthralled its readers. They make one of the best things to indulge in at any age. Here is an account of some of the best science fiction books ever written.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself... Science fiction is central to everything we've ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don't know what they're talking about.
- Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451

Well, I have never come across anything closer to the truth about the essence of science fiction than Ray Bradbury's quote above. Science fiction is, indeed, the history of ideas - ideas that, when they were conceived, were considered impossible, impractical, fantastical and even, at times, blasphemous! However, the history of civilization stands witness to the fact that a lot of those "fantastical" ideas and concepts have, indeed, seen the light of the day in the form of creative inventions and path-breaking discoveries that have paved the way for lofty advancements in the field of science and technology. There is no accounting for how many ingenious scientists and inventors have drawn inspirations for their inventions and discoveries from the so-called bizarre ideas of sci-fi literature. Therefore, science fiction is not just a colorful ruse for occupying oneself on a leisurely summer afternoon - it often hides more sense and potential inspiration in its narrative folds than it is given credit for.

Pioneers of Science Fiction

Madness, and then illumination.
- Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game

That should describe the birth of sci-fi precisely; you first get a crazy idea in your head, one that people would call you mad for; and then you begin to wonder, "What if...."! Today, sci-fi novels have a worldwide readership of many million people. With the advent of science and technology, and the remarkable pace at which it is making progress literally every single day, we give aliens a chance to be probable; our knowledge has diversified enough to allow us this liberty. However, the efforts of the earliest sci-fi authors to establish this genre must be appreciated and accredited. Here is an account of some of the earliest sci-fi authors, and their most notable pieces of science fiction.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
[Year of Publication - 1818]

Frankenstein is the story of a man, a scientist, who finds a way of injecting life into a skeleton assembled from bones collected from graveyards. The result - a humungous monster. Frankenstein is regarded as one of the earliest pieces of science fiction, and is indeed a book that was much, much ahead of its time. However, many people say the book co-belongs to several genres, including romance, horror, as well as gothic.

Quick Fact: Did you know that Frankenstein is in fact the name of the novel's protagonist and not the monster? However, to this day, the term Frankenstein is wrongly used to refer to a monster! Also, the first edition of the book did not carry the author's name!

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - Jules Verne
[Year of Publication - 1870]

One cannot think of sci-fi books and not accredit Jules Verne. Regarded as one of the "Fathers of Science Fiction", Jules Verne is a celebrated sci-fi author. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea  tells the story of a self-proclaimed exile of civilization, the charismatic Captain Nemo, and his exploits on board the magnificent submarine Nautilus.

Quick Fact: Did you know that the distance 20,000 leagues does not refer to the depth, but the length that the Nautilus covered under the sea? If Nautilus was to really go 20,000 leagues under, it would go through and through the Earth six times over!

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
[Year of Publication - 1886]

What would you do if you could drink a potion and turn into somebody else for a few hours? Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  was set on similar realm. Although many regard the book as more of a psychological work, with themes similar to Freud's work about the conscious and subconscious mind, the concept of a potion that one could drink to metamorphose into a different person is strongly suggestive of a sci-fi genre.

Quick Fact: From the year following its publication, 'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' has been adapted into over 120 films, several TV series, radio broadcasts, and even a Tom and Jerry cartoon by the name "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse"!

The Time Machine - Herbert George Wells
[Year of Publication - 1895]

Man has always wondered and wished to go back in time, or even travel to the future. The Time Machine tells the story of an inventor who designs a machine that will help him travel through time. Time travel has always been a common theme of scores of sci-fi novels, movies and TV programs. Now you know where it all started. Herbert George Wells, along with Jules Verne, is regarded as the Father of Science Fiction.

Quick Fact: Did you know that a part of the book's eleventh chapter was deleted from the book? It dealt with the protagonist traveling into the future. It might intrigue you to know that many authors also attempted to write sequels to this timeless sci-fi classic.


Best Science Fiction Books

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlein
[Year of Publication - 1966]

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the story about a lunar colony that wages a war to overthrow the rule of people from Earth. You will realize the name is particularly apt when you consider the story. The author of the book, Robert Heinlein, is regarded as the dean of science fiction writers. One of the trends set in by the book was that of signing off a graffiti that criticizes the government, as Simon Jester.

Quick Fact: Did you know that 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' helped popularize 'Conlang' and 'Loglan'? The book also popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL, which stands for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch".


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
[Year of Publication - 1979 to 1992]

Chances are rare that you haven't heard of this series; but even if you haven't, Don't Panic!  Hahaha! From fish that will help you translate a foreign language if you insert them in your ear, to robots who are perpetually and irrevocably sad, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy  is one roller coaster ride. It subtly and cleverly combines sci-fi with comedy, a blend that goes on to create intellectually appealing nonsense!

Quick Fact: Originally a radio comedy broadcast on BBC radio, the first book in the series was published a year after the radio broadcast was aired. The series is described as a "trilogy of five books", to keep accordance with the humor in the book.


I Am Legend - Richard Matheson
[Year of Publication - 1954]

Perhaps one of the earliest books to popularize the concept of disease-instigated apocalypse, this book greatly helped in establishing and popularizing the zombie genre of books. It is horror combined with sci-fi. Though the idea is now commonplace, what might interest you is to realize that this concept of disease-instigated apocalypse was first thought of more than half a century ago!

Quick Fact: Many filmmakers are tempted to use the idea of a disease-instigated apocalypse even today. But did you know that famous sci-fi author and critic, Damon Knight actually said, "The plot limps"? The books still inspired many subsequent authors and filmmakers.


Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
[Year of Publication - 1985]

What if you could learn about life and the art of war by playing simulation games? Or how would you feel if tomorrow, the world came to be ruled by ants? Ender's Game talks about a futuristic Earth in the hands of Formics, and ant-like race of aliens. As Earthlings prepare to fight a third alien attack, protagonist Ender Wiggin outshines all trainee kids at the Battle School training games with his tactical genius.

Quick Fact: The book was awarded the Nebula Award for best novel in 1985 and the Hugo award in the following year, 1986. These are both considered as two of the most precious awards of the sci-fi genre.


Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
[Year of Publication - 1932]

Man has forever been fascinated with the creation of life. This is one of the central themes of Brave New World - breakthrough reproductive technology combined with such concepts as sleep-learning come together to create a 'brave new world', where society and mankind are greatly evolved. However, even with its advanced technology, the society is far from Utopian; in fact, it is completely dystopian!

Quick Fact: The title of the book was conceived from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's "The Tempest" - the irony of calling drunken sailors "goodly creatures" and "beauteous mankind" is reflected in calling a dystopic society a "brave new world".


Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein
[Year of Publication - 1961]

Promoted as "The most famous Science Fiction Novel ever written", Stranger in a Strange Land  talks about a man, born and raised on Mars by Martians, coming back to Earth during early adulthood. The theme is recurrent with the Superman, though with a few exceptions - the protagonist is not the sole survivor of Mars (as Superman was of the fictional Krypton), and the home planet of the protagonist is not fictional.

Quick Fact: It is hard to believe that a book so liked and loved to date was received rather vitriolically when published and was called "puerile and ludicrous". By the way, did you know that the word "grok" originated in this book? It means "to get the meaning of something".


Animal Farm - George Orwell
[Year of Publication - 1945]

The allegorical novella, Animal Farm  talks about a farm where all animals drive the farm owner out. Though one can look at it as a simple 'fairy story', Animal Farm is a lot more than that - George Orwell anthropomorphized animals to critique human society and tendencies, especially those which presided over the Stalin era. Though not strictly sci-fi, Animal Farm is indeed a path-breaking novella based on the realm of sci-fi.

Quick Fact: Orwell's greatest motivation to write the Animal Farm was to expose corruption of original socialist ideals brought about by Stalinism after realizing "how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries".


2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke
[Year of Publication - 1968]

2001: A Space Odyssey begins 3 million years B.C. and ends in the year 2001. Both the eras see (figurative) birth of a single person who has acquired the capacity to rule the world and is unsure of what to do with it. One of the most striking themes of the book is the fact that the events in the book seem to complete a full circle. This is symbolic of how evolution - biological, philosophical, physical, emotional - occurs; in circles.

Quick Fact: Did you know that the book '2001: A Space Odyssey' was in fact published after the movie was released? This is one of the few times that this has ever happened. The book is hence, regarded as a collaborative work of the author Arthur C. Clarke and director of the film, Stanley Kubrick.


Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
[Year of Publication - 1953]

Childhood's End  is the kind of sci-fi book that will give you immense hope about futuristic Earth. It talks about the "peaceful invasion" of Earth by Overlords, a mysteriously introvert alien race that leads Earth and mankind to a near-Utopian society. The book ends with human beings evolving into a group mind, a recurrent concept in sci-fi. The book is what you would hope and want to believe is going to become of the Earth.

Quick Fact: Did you know that all 210,000 copies of the first print of the book were sold within two months from its publishing date? H. G. Wells critically acclaimed the novel, and stated Clarke to belong to a "very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas."


The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
[Year of Publication - 1974]

The main theme of this book - an interstellar war between humans and aliens - is not something too spectacular or out-of-the-ordinary. However, using this realm, author Joe Haldeman delved successfully and sensitively into the effect of many anthropogenic activities, most significantly war. Another theme central to the book is the effect of time dilation on the psyche of beings.

Quick Fact: The Forever War is the first title of the SF Masterworks series; a series of sci-fi novels (published 1950 onwards) regarded as masterpieces in the genre, published by Orion Publishing Group, UK. It won the Nebula Award (1975), the Hugo Award (1976) and the Locus Award (1976).


Dune - Frank Herbert
[Year of Publication - 1965]

The "world's best-selling science fiction novel", Dune won the first ever Nebula Award in 1966. The book tells the story of one family that comes to rule and control the only planet growing a particular spice called "melange", a substance in demand all over the universe. However, on this background, Dune manages to explore such aspects of human life like philosophy, religion, politics, ecology and human emotions too.

Quick Fact: Did you know that copies of the first edition of Dune are most sought after by book collectors? There is record of first edition copies having sold for almost $10,000 at auctions!


Neuromancer - William Gibson
[Year of Publication - 1984]

A notable novel in the cyberpunk genre of sci-fi, Neuromancer was a classic story that epitomized "high tech and low life", precisely what the genre cyberpunk is known and loved for. All computer lovers and programmers should read this book that tells the story of a hacker hired to pull off the ultimate computer hack ever. The book is part of the Sprawl Trilogy.

Quick Fact: Neuromancer is Gibson's debut novel, and the first novel to win the triple crown - the Philip K. Dick Award, Nebula Award and Hugo Award. Quite an achievement, considering it was a debut, isn't it?


I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
[Year of Publication - 1940 to 1950; book in 1950]

Through this collection of nine short stories, Asimov very splendidly explored such sensitive issues as ethics, morals and psychological impact of human development and dependency on robots. Such was the impact of this book, that almost all robot books written thereafter obey 'The Three Laws' of robotics laid down by Asimov in his stories.

Quick Fact: The term "robopsychology" first appeared in these stories; Dr. Susan Calvin is a recurrent character, a robopsychologist, in these stories. The book also deals with "Frankenstein complex" - the fear that robots will turn against their creators (reminiscent of the plot of Frankenstein).


The Book of the New Sun - Gene Wolfe
[Year of Publication - 1980 to 1983]

The Book of the New Sun  is a novel written in four volumes. The book is set in a time frame when the Sun has begun to dim and Earth is growing to be a colder place. The intriguing fact about the book is how author Wolfe has used allegory to look into and explore many phenomena as well as personalities commonly known to us. For example: the protagonist and narrator, Severian has been identified as Christ!

Quick Fact: Many of the words used in the book are not true English words and were, in fact, invented by the author! For example, the word "fuligin" used to describe Severian's torturer's cloak that was "a color that is darker than black", is not a true word!


Famous Science Fiction Authors

There are some people whose work is well beyond the scope of a paragraph in an article, or even an entire article dedicated to them. They are known as people who brought about significant changes and created a wave that washed over their entire field of work. Many such sci-fi authors are known to us; to name a few, Iain M. Banks, Stanislaw Lem, Carol Emshwiller, Elizabeth Hand, Jack Womack and many more. Here we take a look at three great sci-fi authors (choice, strictly personal) who are known more for their style of work and the recurrent themes they explored, than for individual books/novels they wrote.

Philip K. Dick [1928 - 1982]
Try These: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly

Though an extremely difficult task, if one was to describe Dick's work with a common phrase, one could say his books dealt with "society, in a world ruled by monopoly and authoritarianism". Another common theme in his books is surrealism - exploring what is "real" and how do you define it. It is said that he drew on his own experiences in writing about drug abuse and mental disorders. This theme was most markedly seen in A Scanner Darkly, which won the British Science Fiction Association Award in 1978. Such a realm, combined with sci-fi, must definitely make an awesome read, as you can imagine. Dick was awarded with the Hugo Award, John W. Campbell Memorial Award, British Science Fiction Association Award and the Graouilly d'Or (Festival de Metz, France) Award, along with being nominated several times for the Nebula Award as well.

James Graham Ballard [1930 - 2009]
Try These: Crash, Empire of the Sun

One of the revolutionaries of New Wave Science Fiction, such was the genius of J. G. Ballard, that the English vocabulary actually has a word that is now used to describe a style of writing similar to his, "Ballardian"! Ballard's books explore the psychological effects of development of science and technology on mankind and the society. Though it may seem a tad cynical, Ballard managed to do it aesthetically, using bleak imagery and post-apocalyptic dystopian settings. Ballard was aptly included by The Times in its 2008 list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". "Empire of the Sun" is undoubtedly his best work and won him the Guardian Fiction Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and nomination for the Booker Prize.

John Holbrook "Jack" Vance [1916 - present]
Try These: The Dragon Masters, The Lyonesse Trilogy

The most recurrent theme of Vance's books (especially those published around and after 1960s) is that of the Gaean Reach; where the world is described to be colonized by humans, marked by free flow of travel and trade. The different worlds, however, differed greatly in their economic, social and cultural settings, with some being liberal, some being orthodox, while some having very distinct and unusual cultural values. He has won several accolades in his life, including the Nebula Award (The Last Castle), Hugo Award (The Last Castle, The Dragon Master), World Fantasy Award (Life Achievement, and for third book Madouc of the Lyonesse  trilogy) and was commemorated the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master in 1997.


The fact that science fiction books are among the most-read literatures of all time is indisputable. The credit goes partly to the creative imagination of the authors of such works and partly to the unexpected sense such works make sometimes. Apart from this, the defining moniker of such literature, science fiction, which happens to be an oxymoron, says it all. You see, science  is the opposite of fiction and vice versa. Hence, when used together, the resulting term denotes a dual nature and who isn't aware of the dual characteristic of everything we know or experience? The cosmos that we inhabit is one hell of a gig of duality and is all about opposite balancing opposite. Therefore, in such a world that works on the "two-sides-of-the-same-coin" principle, it's rational to conclude that oxymorons make sense. Ergo, long live sci-fi!