Want to start reading some science fiction, but aren't sure where to begin? We've put together an introductory scifi lit syllabus just for you.
WHAT THIS LIST IS AND ISN'T
There are a few things to keep in mind about this syllabus for SF 101: Introduction to Literature.
It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day). So you'll find a mix of old and new here, as well as fan favorites tucked in among more literary authors.
Back in the mists of time, I used to teach literature and American Studies at UC Berkeley, so I have some experience putting together course materials for university classes very much like one. (In fact, there are a few books on here that I used to teach.) What educators aim to do in overview courses is expose students to the broadest possible set of examples of a genre, not just the "canon." It is in this spirit that I chose the books on this list.
HOW TO USE THIS LIST
The course is divided up into six sections, each with a collection of books that range from canonical classics to works off the beaten path. Ideally, you will read all the books on the list. But if you don't have the time to read them all, I suggest you sample one book of your choice from each section.
Where possible, I have linked to free versions of these books online. Where that isn't possible, I have linked to sites where you can read part of the book, and buy the book if you choose.
SF 101: INTRODUCTION TO LITERATURE SYLLABUS
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
The classic tale that many believe is the foundation of the science fiction genre, Frankenstein came out in 1818. The story of a mad scientist who builds a synthetic human out of corpse body parts, it introduces two themes that continue in SF today: The problems caused by unethical science, and the consciousness of synthetic beings.
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Wells wrote a number of novels that helped shape the science fiction genre in the late nineteenth century, but The Time Machine introduced ideas that resonated through SF for over a century. The idea of time travel via machine came partly from this 1895 book, which also made the radical move of suggesting that humans of the future would have evolved into a different form. Remember: Darwin's ideas at this point in history were very new indeed, so Wells' depiction of a future humanity divided into two separate species was cutting-edge stuff.
A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
This swashbuckling adventure on Mars isn't strictly a space opera, since protagonist John Carter doesn't use a spaceship to reach the red planet. But Burroughs' 1911 novel, the first in a long series about Barsoom (the natives' name for Mars), depicts aliens and other planets in ways that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Star Wars. It's one of the most influential interplanetary adventures in the genre. You can read io9 contributor John Marr's posts about the Barsoom novels here, if you'd like to learn more about the books.
"At the Mountains of Madness," H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft helped shape a popular subgenre of science fiction, the "weird tale," which blended science with horror to create moody tales of monsters from beyond the stars. This novella, written in 1931, introduces us to some of Lovecraft's most terrifying alien creatures, discovered by a team of scientists exploring Antarctica.
Utopias and Dystopias
Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Though Utopian fiction has been a mainstay of literature for centuries, Gilman's 1915 novel was explicitly science fictional. A team of scientists and investigators journey to the hitherto unexplored nation called Herland, an all-female country where women rule via a combination of egalitarian politics and scientific principles. The book is divided up into sections that treat different aspects of Herland's society, as well as following the misadventures of the men trying to understand it. Gilman's book is also one of the first examples of feminist science fiction, a subgenre that continues into the present day.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Huxley's 1932 novel is about a false Utopia in a far-future London where it seems that everyone's needs are met and society is perfect - but in fact, humanity is being destroyed by a rigid caste system imposed by selective breeding, social conditioning, and drugs. The novel parodies the idea of a capitalist Utopia with its corrupt "Fordist" belief system and mass-produced workers who are grown in vats and taught to desire consumer sports items. Ultimately the novel is an argument against the idea of a planned society.
1984, George Orwell
Published in 1948, this is a classic and highly-influential novel about a future version of London which is entirely dystopian. All information is heavily-censored by the "EngSoc" or English Socialist government, and every person lives with a surveillance device called a "telescreen" in his or her home. We follow the tragic story of two people who are caught engaging in a subversive sexual relationship. Big Brother, the all-powerful figurehead for the EngSoc government, has since the novel's publication become the ultimate symbol for futuristic fascism.
The Man In the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
In this paranoid alternate history of the post-World War II period in America, Germany and Japan won the war. A cast of interconnected characters struggle to survive in a country ruled by occupying forces they barely understand. Meanwhile, a murky plot to subvert the nation's current rulers emerges, and hinges partly on the fate of a man who has written an alternate history of World War II in which America wins the war.
The Female Man, Joanna Russ
In this tale of time travel and alternate universes, a female warrior from the future travels back to the present day (in this case, the late 1960s) to warn humanity about a coming war between men and women. In a narrative that jumps through time and across parallel versions of America, we encounter alternate versions of the warrior: Social circumstances made her a brave fighter in one universe, but molded her into a meek office worker in another. Challenging and intense, this novel suggests that there are many paths to a better world - and to a worse one.
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
This classic set of linked short stories, published in 1955, explores the nature of robot consciousness through the eyes of a "robopsychologist" who has to figure out why her company's sentient artificial creations are going crazy and breaking down.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The novel that made "cyberpunk" a household word in the early 1980s introduces us to a world where AIs interact with humans in cyberspace. Gorgeously written and extremely influential, Neuromancer suggests that the line between human and AI has become so blurry that it's almost impossible to tell where humanity ends and machinery begins.
Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross
A recent novel by award-winning author Stross, Saturn's Children is a deceptively light-hearted story of a sexbot trying to figure out what her life really means now that the humans she was programmed to service are extinct.
"Who Goes There," John W. Campbell
The short story that inspired the movie (and subsequent remakes) called The Thing, this is a tale that goes beyond the comfortably humanoid aliens of Barsoom and shows us what truly alien life would be like.
Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler
Butler brings us a story of completely alien creatures who want to merge with humanity. This series of three interconnected stories focuses on the Oankali, aliens who use biotechnology to reinvent themselves every few generations by merging with other intelligent forms of life. Their new chosen mates are human, and Butler takes us through three generations of the Oankali's hybridization project, introducing us to the Oankali's three-gender family structure as well as their biotech spaceships, created by lifeforms that devour entire planets to build themselves into vast habitats that roam the galaxy.
The Secret City, by Carol Emschwiller
Emschwiller turns the typical alien invasion story on its head in this short, moving tale of the children of alien tourists who were accidentally stranded on Earth. Here the "invaders" are more like immigrants, struggling to integrate into a powerful human culture they barely understand.
Triplanetary, E.E. "Doc" Smith
E.E. "Doc" Smith created the fabled Lensman series in the 1930s, almost singlehandedly jumpstarting the space opera genre in the process. Unabashedly focused on adventure and interstellar battles, Triplanetary is the first book of the Lensman saga, taking us back millions of years to a battle waged between aliens on Earth. Humans are the unwitting pawns of the aliens, and certain humans have been the experimental subjects in a vast eugenics program to breed superwarriors.
Downbelow Station, C.J. Cherryh
Cherryh reinvented space opera in the 1970s with this hard-hitting story set on a space station. Swarms of refugees pack into Pell Station in the wake of conflict between the Earth Company and outer stations.
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Unlike space operas with their vast galactic wars and pyrotechnic battles, Russell's acclaimed novel offers us a more realistic view of space travel and alien encounters. When scientists pick up the sounds of alien music coming from a distant planet, only the Catholic Church is willing to fund a space voyage to investigate them - in the hopes that they can convert the natives to Christianity. The priest they send, along with a team of scientists, find out the truth behind where the alien music comes from. And no matter what you're expecting, you'll be unsettled by what they find.
Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks
This is the first novel in Banks' famous Culture series, about a vast, post-human society whose spread encompasses big chunks of the galaxy. Here we're introduced to Special Circumstances, an elite group of agents who do all the things the Utopian, egalitarian Culture pretends not to be doing: Engaging in espionage, secret war, and cultural imperialism. It's a brilliant spy-vs.-spy story that drops us into Banks' fascinating world of interstellar politics and mind-blowing mega-technologies.
Science Fiction as Political Philosophy
Orlando, Virgina Woolf
Orlando decides to stay young forever in the sixteenth century, and we follow his adventures through several centuries - until abruptly, during his stint as a colonial manager 300 years ago, he turns into a woman overnight. Now he's forced to cope with the world as a woman in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Woolf deals with changing world politics, as well as the politics of gender identity.
Stranger In A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
An alien arrives on Earth, and changes everything with his radical ideas. Heinlein is known as a philosophical author, and in one of his most celebrated novels he explores the limits of individuality as well as personal fulfillment.
Dhalgren, Samuel Delany
Delany's dystopian story explores what happens when a midwestern city called Bellona is trapped inside some kind of space-time rift where the laws of physics go haywire and all communication is cut off from the outside world. Complex and hallucinatory, the novel explores what happens to human relationships in a small town after reality becomes plastic. Are they trapped on another world? In another dimension? Dhalgren is enigmatic, exploring how storytelling and other narratives reshape the world.
The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin
The second part of this 1974 novel's title is: "An Ambiguous Utopia." It's the story of two civilizations. A wealthy but authoritarian culture thrives planetside, and on its arid moon is a feminist-anarchist colony created by dissidents who left the planet over a century before. A brilliant physicist is the first member of the moon colony to travel back planetside since the separation. What he learns there, using advanced scientific equipment, is nothing compared to what he learns about political conflict.
Anathem, Neal Stephenson
Not only is this novel a celebration of the monastic life of scholars, but it is also a series of lessons about science, math, and philosophy. A group of young researchers first discover, then analyze, an object that has arrived in orbit around their planet, and we learn with them about the most rational way to approach that which is truly alien. Theories of mind and matter are the subjects of entire chapters in this story about the struggle between logic and superstition.