Science fiction is all about discovery and invention, but only a few books have actually created whole new genres. Here are 10 books that pioneered a new type of science-fictional story. Do you have what it takes to join them?
The genre: Military science fiction
The book: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.
Actually, Wikipedia and Fandomania credit the earliest beginnings of military SF to George T. Chesney's 1871 Germany-invades-England tale "The Battle Of Dorking" and George T. Griffith's serialized "The Angel Of Revolution," plus the works of H.G. Wells. But the book that everybody refers to as the touchstone of military SF, the book which really launched the themes of futuristic interplanetary warfare and examining the military as a social entity, was Heinlein's Starship Troopers. As Fandomania's survey puts it, this 1959 book "put Military Science Fiction on the radar."
The genre: Cyberpunk
The book: Neuromancer by William Gibson.
There's some debate about who really "invented" Cyberpunk as a genre. As this cranky essay (PDF) notes, Asimov was the first writer to consider the ramifications of artificial intelligence seriously. Bruce Sterling helped shape the genre with his 1986 anthology Mirrorshades. Bruce Bethke invented the term "cyberpunk" with his 1980 short story called "Cyberpunk." But even Bethke admits:
I never claimed to have invented cyberpunk fiction! That honor belongs primarily to William Gibson, whose 1984 novel, Neuromancer, was the real defining work of "The Movement." (At the time, Mike Swanwick argued that the movement writers should properly be termed neuromantics, since so much of what they were doing was clearly Imitation Neuromancer.)
Gibson's Neuromancer gives us the fusion of noir with brain-computer interfaces and dystopian paranoia, which spawned so many imitators.
The genre: Gothic science fiction
The book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Commonly acclaimed as the first science fiction novel in general, Frankenstein was the first novel to meld the burgeoning gothic lit genre with the themes of abuse of science. Brian Aldiss, in his seminal work of SF criticism The Billion-Year Spree, claims that SF was "born out of the gothic mode" with Frankenstein. As CUNY professor Lilia Melani puts it:
In 1818, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus introduced the theme of the dangers of science and created the obsessed scientist, who was to develop into the mad scientist, and the archetypal Monster. Frankenstein has been called the first science fiction novel; she of course thought she was writing a novel of terror.
Gothic science fiction has come to mean any science-fictional story with terrifying elements, a horrendous monster or some kind of science-fictional explanation for a horror trope, like vampires created by a bio-engineered plague.
The genre: First contact with an alien race
The book: Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. This was a tough one - even if you only define "first contact" as being a scenario where human society, as a whole, comes into contact with an alien species (and not just one solitary human explorer) you still have tons of early stories about aliens showing up. Some would say the earliest notable "first contact" novel is H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds. But let's say that a crucial component of the "first contact" story is that the aliens are friendly - or at least reasonably well-intentioned. Otherwise, you just have an invasion or war story. In that case, Childhood's End, with its super-advanced Overlords showing up and guiding humanity to a higher plane of existence and merger with the Overmind, although somewhat disturbing, is still a more benign story than Wells'. And thus a more proper precursor to books like Carl Sagan's Contact and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis saga.
The genre: Utopian science fiction
The book: Stories of utopian futures are enjoying a bit of a resurgence, with the upcoming Shine Anthology pushing for a more optimistic futurism. But the first future utopian novel (as distinguished from, say, More's Utopia, which is the account of a fictional realm) is The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane C. Loudon. In this happy future, everyone wears neon hats:
The ladies were all arrayed in loose trowsers, over which hung drapery in graceful folds; and most of them caried on their heads, streams of lighted gas forced by capillary tubes, into plumes, fleurs-de-lis, or in short any form the wearer pleased; which jets de feu had an uncommonly chaste and elegant effect.
Other wonders include "the steam-powered automaton surgeons and lawyers (who speak briefs fed into tubes in their bodies) and the delivery of letters by cannon-balls, which are shot into large nets erected in each village." She even predicts a sort of Internet. Everyone travels around in giant blimps, and it's a happy, egalitarian society. There's also Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, in which a young man goes to sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the Socialist utopia of the year 2000 - Bellamy's book may have been more influential, along with H.G. Wells' A Modern Utopia. (Thanks to Liz Henry for the suggestions.)
The genre: Apocalyptic fiction
The book: The earliest apocalyptic novel is probably Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man. But the first really popular novel of global devastation, and the one which helped to spawn a ton of imitators, is Nevil Schute's 1957 novel On The Beach. As you'd expect from that date, it's all about nuclear holocaust, which devastates the Northern Hemisphere and leaves the last survivors in Australia and New Zealand, drinking way too much wine while awaiting the end of everything. It became a film and also helped shape our atomic anxiety into a rich seam of fiction that endures today in novels like The Road.
The genre: Steampunk
The book: Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy by K.W. Jeter. Jeter not only invented the term steampunk, in an interview around the time this 1987 novel came out. A weird comic twist on the Victorian adventure novel, Infernal Devices stars George, a young watchmaker who discovers that his father was the greatest inventor of all time - even creating a clockwork automaton version of George. The clockwork duplicate of George plays the violin better than Paganini and has greater sexual prowess than George himself, leading to all sorts of wacky adventures as people mistake George for his automaton twin. Other books that could claim to be steampunk pioneers include Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983) and Homunculus (1986) by James Blaylock. But to be fair, the book that really popularized the steampunk genre was 1990's The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
The genre: Time travel
The book: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. This is sort of a gimme, I guess. The best-known early time-travel saga, and still one of the best, Wells' story launched a whole flotilla of time vessels into the distant future as well as the past. Like War Of The Worlds, it has been adapted into movies and various other formats, and the Eloi/Morlock dichotomy has become a sort of shorthand for a type of future dystopia rife with exaggerated social division.
The genre: Alternate history
The book: Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon And The Conquest Of The World.) Screw those "Hitler wins World War II" books. How about this popular "Napoleon won the Napoleonic wars" book, published back when Napoleon was still a living memory? Louis Geoffroy imagines Napoleon's First French Empire defeating Russia and then going on to invade England in 1814. Result: Game over. Napoleon rules the world.
The genre: Posthuman space opera
The book: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. I have no idea what book launched the "space opera" genre originally - that might be a question for another day. And there's some debate over which book inspired the resurgence of space-opera books loosely called "the new space opera." But to me, it's probably more accurate to call this genre "posthuman space-opera," since it so frequently deals with artificial intelligences, augmented humans, beings who live for millions of years, and generally a set of characters who far exceed the capabilities of a regular human. And for my money, the first really influential star-spanning novel about a civilization of A.I.s (the Minds) and superhumans whose concerns are much farther reaching than our pathetic horizons was 1987's Consider Phlebas. I freely admit this may be a bit of personal bias showing through, since Phlebas was the first novel I read which really knocked my head off and made me see the awesome potential for this type of story.
So what are you waiting for? Go out there and create some more new genres!
Top image from Consider Phelbas cover.
Additional reporting by Alexis Brown.