To me, what constitutes science fiction has always been quite clear, and my numerous attempts at defining the genre have merely been a way of communicating that certainty. But what does “essential” mean? I found that much harder to define. Yes, I relied a lot on my favourite novels when compiling this list – I thought they were brilliant, therefore they must be essential. Except several of them I could not quite squeeze in. My favourite DG Compton novel, for example, is Synthajoy, but in yesterday’s list I instead included The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – because I think it covers a theme more essential to a true exploration of the science fiction genre. Likewise, I wanted to include Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel that has been a touchstone work for my own writing for several years. But it only hints at being alternate history in its final pages, and it barely qualifies as space fiction. Oh well.
We readily agreed that graphic novels, or bandes dessinées, were allowed. I picked the most obvious choice – see number 26 below. I’d like to have chosen Dan Dare or the Trigan Empire, but I don’t think either really characterises a tradition in British sf comics – certainly not one that continues to this day. So, much as I love them, I found their inclusion hard to justify.
Certainly, there were movements during the last few decades in sf which I needed to represent in my list: cyberpunk, steampunk, New Space Opera… As long as I picked one work from each, and could justify its presence, then job done. The works I chose for those subgenres are not the most obvious ones, but I think they’re the most important – or I certainly believe they deserve to be. Others may disagree.
Anyway, the list…
26 The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
In France, there is a strong sf tradition associated with comics, or bandes dessinée. Not all of these have been translated into English – sadly. The Incal is one of the most popular bandes dessinée, and rightly so. It is completely bonkers, beautifully drawn, and an excellent example of what the medium can do.
27 Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Cherryh has been churning out muscular hard sf since 1976, and she’s still going. Somehow she has managed to stitch all these novels in to a single future history. It’s an astonishing achievement. This book is perhaps her best-known, and is very much characteristic of her oeuvre.
28 Native Tongue, Suzette Elgin Haden (1984)
Women-only utopias do not happen overnight – though from some of the novels which feature them you might think so. Native Tongue charts one route, starting from a near-future in which women are reduced once again to the status of chattel. The development of a women-only language, Láadan, is instrumental in overturning this situation. This novel is both linguistic sf and feminist sf.
29 The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The scary thing about this book is that it’s completely made-up but it feels like it could really happen – might be happening now, in fact. You see it in the news every day, and sometimes you have to wonder what is going through people’s heads – the Young Earthers and Creationists, the congresswoman who publicly declares women should not have the vote, New Mexico recently passing a law which requires rape victims to carry pregnancies to term… I’d consider making such people read this book, but I have a horrible feeling they’d consider it utopian fiction…
30 Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris (1985)
Hav is not a real place, though you might be fooled into thinking so as you read this novel. Very early proto-sf often couched its tall tales in the form of travel journals, but once Gernsback bootstrapped the genre into existence, as a form of sf it seemed to go into decline. A pity, if Last Letters from Hav is any indication of what it can do.
31 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
Say “cyberpunk” and everyone immediately thinks of Neuromancer. But I’m not convinced that’s an especially essential book – cyberpunk has become a lifestyle, and does it really matter which novel – arguably – booted it up into existence? What is essential, however, is the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. This one. It marked the end of cyberpunk as a sf literary movement. All the cyberpunk novels and stories that followed were just twitchings of the subgenre’s rotting corpse.
32 ‘Great Work of Time’, John Crowley (1989)
This is one of my two slightly sneaky inclusions. We did agree to allow novellas, and many novellas are indeed published as independent books. But this one never was – it first appeared in the collection Novelty. It is possibly the best time paradox story ever written, with the possible exception of Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.
33 Take Back Plenty†, Colin Greenland (1990)
New Space Opera has been good for science fiction. But if this book had been its model rather than Banks’ Culture novels, it could all have turned out very differently. Take Back Plenty celebrates the pulp side of sf, and does so with intelligence, wit and verve. It is one of the genre’s best books.
34 The Difference Engine†, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling (1990)
Another slightly sneaky choice, as Sterling appears alone at the end of this list. The term “steampunk” was coined by KW Jeter, and his Morlock Night and Infernal Devices are emblematic of the subgenre. But they’re not actually that good. The Difference Engine is good. It is the one steampunk novel that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the subgenre (which is now, sadly, a lifestyle).
35 Stations of the Tide, Michael Swanwick (1991)
This sf novel is the only one I can think of which mixes science fiction and Southern Gothic. It’s a mashup that shouldn’t by rights succeed. But it does. It is a rich and strange book – and sf needs to be rich and strange more often.
36 Sarah Canary†, Karen Joy Fowler (1991)
Not all first contact novels involve hardy explorers beaming down onto an alien planet and trying to communicate with mysterious aliens. Sometimes the mysterious aliens are here on Earth; and sometimes we will never know if they were alien or even if we have made contact. This book is proof that sf does not need to be about the future, spaceships, robots, time travel, or giant computer brains.
37 Red Mars*, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)
This is the definitive novel on the near-future colonisation of another planet – in this case, our neighbour, Mars. Enough said. (Don’t forget to read the sequels too.)
38 China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F McHugh (1992)
Near-future sf is difficult to do well, if only because the author is expected to have some sort of magical crystal ball. But sf has never been predictive, and when it has got something right it’s been a happy accident. China Mountain Zhang is a near-future novel, but that’s incidental. It is beautifully written. That’s all that matters. McHugh is one of the genre’s very best writers.
39 Dark Sky Legion, William Barton (1992)
We may never find a way to circumvent the speed of light. Which means 90% of science fiction is just so much magical hogwash. But some writers have tried to envisage a distant future in which the speed of light restriction still holds true. This is the best of the bunch. It also does something interesting philosophically – and sf is traditionally not very good at that.
40 A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
Some space operas aren’t New, though they appeared while New Space Opera was doing its thing. The central premise of A Fire Upon the Deep, the Zones of Thought, is one of those ideas that shows why sf is such an important and vibrant mode of fiction. The somewhat ordinary plot attached is almost incidental.
41 Fatherland, Richard Harris (1992)
One form of alternate history is vastly more popular than any other: Hitler winning WWII. It’s impossible to write a story based on it that is neither derivative nor clichéd. This is probably the best of the lot – because it is set decades after the War, and is only peripherally concerned with the fact of the Nazi victory.
42 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)
There are many themes which science fiction rarely tackles. Postcolonialism is one. It smacks too much of the real world – and too much of the real world that is not the First World – for most sf writers and readers. Coelestis treats the subject with intelligence, and then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. A masterwork.
43 Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Among the many themes covered by sf over the decades has been sexuality and gender. The most famous such novel is LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness, but given the one-book-per-author rule I couldn’t pick that. (And besides, its treatment of its hermaphroditic humans is somewhat problematical.) Scott complicates matters here by throwing in five genders and nine sexual preferences and, while the gender politics are still a little iffy, this is an essential exploration of the theme.
44 Voyage, Stephen Baxter (1996)
This is not only alternate history, it is also space fiction: it is an alternate history of a NASA mission to Mars. The research is impeccable, and it makes a highly plausible fist of its premise. Space fiction has been chiefly dominated by writers who are not very good, which is unfortunate. Happily, Baxter can write well, and he does so in this book.
45 Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Is it science fiction, or is it fantasy? The world of the title character does seem more fantastical than sfnal, but it’s wrapped in a near-future narrative which is resolutely sf. And the way the two narratives interact, and change each other, is definitely straight from science fiction’s toolbox.
46 Light, M John Harrison (2002)
This is perhaps the most literary science fiction novel ever written (not counting, of course, the two sequels). Or perhaps it’s the most science-fictional literary novel ever written. On balance, I suspect the former – it is too steeped in genre to be wholly accessible to readers of literary fiction. That still makes it essential for sf readers, however.
47 Life, Gwyneth Jones (2004)
Surprisingly, working scientists are not especially popular as protagonists in science fiction. This novel is about one. And science. It is also brilliant.
48 Alanya to Alanya, L Timmel Duchamp (2005)
First contact is a genre staple. This novel – the first of the Marq’ssan Cycle quintet – is not the first in which the visiting aliens choose to speak only to women, and which subsequently prompts a global crisis. It is, however, notable for a near-future world in which the ultra-rich rule openly and cruelly. Elizabeth Weatherall, PA to the chief villain of this book, goes on in later volumes to become one of the genre’s great villains in her own right. Go read all five books.
49 The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Post-apocalypse is such a well-established subgenre that recently most such novels have been by writers of literary fiction. And this is the best of those. It’s also much better than any genre post-apocalypse novel. Sadly, the trope has now been so over-used it’s become banal. Someone needs to do something different with it.
50 The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (2009)
We look at the world today and see impending climate crash and the collapse of national economies… but no sf novel except this one has dealt with such a scenario. It’s for good reason that Sterling was one employed as”Visionary in Residence” at a Californian university. Essential reading for the near-future.
And that’s it. I think I’ve covered all the major bases. Not every book in my list of fifty is a blinding piece of literary genius – this is science fiction, after all… But I think my choices show a good spread of themes and subgenres, and every book is certainly worth reading. I couldn’t get everything in, however. Some choices were just too hard to justify. For example, one subgenre of sf I was keen to have on my list was early space travel. Unfortunately, I’ve not read Garitt P Serviss or Willy Ley, and there’s a reason why High Vacuum (1956), First on the Moon (1958) and The Pilgrim Project (1966) are forgotten. So, no early space travel. Instead, I have Voyage as my entry for realistic space fiction (as if I’d really pick Bova, or Steele, or their like).
Finally, it has been a little dismaying putting together this list to discover how many of my selections are out of print. Some have recently been made available after many years OOP, either in the SF Masterworks series, or as ebooks through the SF Gateway. Respect to both for that. But others on my list have languished in obscurity since their original publication. This, I feel, doesn’t invalidate their, er, essentialness. After all, books don’t stay in print because they are essential, they stay in print because they’re popular, because people keep on buying them.
We have no real agreed academic canon in genre fiction, no fixed list of sf novels which teachers and lecturers turn to when designing courses on the subject. Yes, there are several books that people point to when the word “classic” is mentioned, but most of those are artefacts of the genre’s history. They were not chosen because experts in the subject have over the decades deemed them the best science fiction has produced in its eighty-seven years. Perhaps it’s good that sf is democratic in that regard… but when it elevates Foundation, Starship Troopers, the Lensman series and the like to greatness, I have to wonder…