The Great Science Fiction Novels

My list of the greatest sf novels ever written, in chronological order. Caveats/disclaimers: I'm not counting proto-sf like "The Odyssey" or "Utopia." I'm only listing full-length novels here, so even though it sorta kills me I'm not including great novellas like Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" or John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (basis of all three versions of "The Thing"), or the brilliant short stories of Charlie Beaumont, Richard Matheson, James Triptree, Jr. (a.k.a. Alice Sheldon), Harlan Ellison, Connie Willis, or Ted Chiang. I'm also only counting adult literature, not YA, so sorry but no "Hunger Games," "Maze Runner," or "Ender's Game"—plus, if you're reading this you've probably already read all that stuff; time to move on to the grown-up books. (I did give "A Wrinkle in Time" a little velvet-rope treatment because, come on). If your favorite book isn't on this list: who cares. It's a list by some random stranger on the internet. As "Fahrenheit 451" teaches us, nobody can ever really take a book you love from you.

Cover images are either first editions or the coolest ones. All artists credited when possible. Missing information is welcomed.

The Great Science Fiction Novels
"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: An Underwater Tour" (1870) Jules Verne. Illustration by Alphonse Marie de Neuville.

A team dispatched to investigate rumors of a sea monster that's been destroying English ships discovers, when their own ship is sunk, that the culprit is actually a submarine, the "Nautilus," built and commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo, son of an Indian raja who's declared war on the imperial powers of the world. As captives/guests on board the Nautilus, they visit Antarctica and Atlantis, hunt sharks, hold an underwater funeral, and, of course, battle a giant squid. One of my friends read this in middle school and loved it; he's a NASA engineer now. It's basically an engineer's book, the first hard science fiction novel, full of details about how the Nautilus works: Verne not only imagined a submarine warship at a time when subs were barely feasible but described it as being nuclear powered, fifty years before Ernest Rutherford discovered that splitting lithium atoms released energy.

Adapted many times, in lots of media: plays, radio, movies (live action and animated), TV, musicals, comics. The best-known version is the (really pretty good) live-action 1954 film by Disney, starring Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and James Mason as Captain Nemo. Director Bryan Singer claims to be working on a script for a new version.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The War of the Worlds" (1897) H.G. Wells. Illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa. (Look up the whole series of illustrations; they're amazing.)

I could've chosen any of Wells's "scientific romances," as he called them—"The Time Machine" is still the definitive time travel story, and "The Invisible Man" is second only to "Frankenstein" as a cautionary tale about the hubris of knowledge—but this is the big one: the template for every alien invasion story to come after it, complete with death rays and tentacles. Written in the last years of the nineteenth century, it's still a great read, as fresh, exciting, and creepy as if it had come out today. Like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," it's a fable about colonialism: Welles and his brother were walking through the countryside talking about the English extermintion of the Tasmanians, when his brother suggested, "suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly" and start slaughtering people. Welles said he spent several weeks bicycling through the countryside, "marking down suitable places and people for destruction." The resulting novel was a prescient vision of the mechanized total warfare of the 20th century: among the Martians' otherworldly weapons, like the famous tripods and incineration ray, is "black smoke," or poison gas, which would cease to be science fiction in another seventeen years. Even though [SPOILER] the Edwardian status quo is restored in the end, the book remains a damning indictment of imperialism and a vivid portrait of human brutality and folly. I've always remembered the protagonist murdering a clergyman who's gone insane, a soldier who has grandiose plans to form a resistance but mostly just smokes cigars, and one old man the army's trying to evacuate who refuses to leave his valuable orchids behind, while the Martians loom just over the horizon.

Famously adapted for radio by Orson Wells (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g), as a prog-rock opera by Jeff Wayne (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsPoCMDEWeE) with vocals by Juston Hayward of the Moody Blues and narration by RIchard Burton, and many times on film, most memorably by George Pal in 1953 and Steven Spielberg in 2007—both versions are imperfect, but still pretty great.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Night Land" (1912) William Hope Hodgson. Cover art: Robert lo Grippo.

Okay I'm not even going to try to pretend that I've read all of "The Night Land." Practically no one has (and if you have, please comment)—one reason being that, although it was written in the early 20th century, its narrator is from the 1600s, so it's written in a sort of faux-Elizabethan prose that by no means makes for easy reading. This is the ur-text of the "dying Earth" genre, set millions of years in the future when the sun has guttered out and what's left of humanity lives in a metal pyramid seven miles high called "The Great Redoubt." The dark volcanic wasteland beyond it (with place names like "The Plain of Blue Fire") is prowled by creatures called "abhumans" and beings known only as "The Silent Ones." It really has more to do with visionary literature like Milton or Blake than with most sf, fantasy, or horror, although it's been very influential in all those genres: H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, both giants of American horror fantasy, admired it enormously, and there have been several anthologites of new stories by other writers set in its world. It's one of those books, like "A Voyage to Arcturus" and the work of Olaf Stapledon (see below), that few sf/fantasy readers have read, but their favorite writers have.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"A Voyage to Arcturus" (1920), David Lindsay. Cover painting: "The Treasures of Satan" (1894), Jean Delville. Cover design: John Coulthart.

Another hugely influential early visionary work of science fiction that practically no one has actually read: among the admirers of "A Voyage to Arcturus" were C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien; Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore have both written about it. A man is transported, via a crystal spaceship, to a world orbiting the star Arcturus, where he finds himself in an alien body with new organs that endow him with extra senses—e.g., he can see two new primary colors, and access the subjective sensations of other beings and objects. He journeys through various regions of the planet (which may correspond to different stages of life or philosophical positions), riding a flying dragon-like creature, undergoing various physical and spiritual transmogrifications (gender being the least of them), and coupling with, destroying, or absorbing the life forces of various other characters he encounters along the way. English writer/philosopher Colin Wilson called it "the greatest novel of the twentieth century." I don't know about all that, but it's definitely not like anything else you've ever read. Like Olaf Stapledon's books (see below), it's less like what we think of as a novel—it doesn't have well-developed characters, or even what we think of as a plot—than a philosophical odyssey or religious allegory like "Pilgrim's Progress" or Dante's "Inferno."
"Voyage to Arcturus" has inspired all kinds of adaptations: a radio drama, a sequel (not by Lindsay) , a three-hour play, an opera, a jazz concept album, and a student film—but never a feature.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Last and First Men" (1930) and "Star Maker" (1937) Olaf Stapledon. Cover art: Ernst Haeckel.

More books that inspired some of your favorite writers: Olaf Stapledon's novels were admired by Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, C.S. Lewis, and H.P. Lovecraft. (Respectable literary novelist Virginia Woolf also admired Stapledon's work and corresponded with him.) Like "Voyage to Arcturus," they're less like novels than works of speculative philosophy in the form of fiction. "Last and First Men" is about the future history of humanity as it spreads throughout the solar system, evolving over the eons into new species, including flying men, giant brains housed in fortresses, and multigendered, cannibalistic artificial beings. "Star Maker" is even more gandiose in its conception: a complete history of the entire universe. While they aren't long books by page count, they feel like immense, multivolume sagas, since they cover billions of years and Stapledon crams enough ideas for a dozen sf novels into every page: telepathic symbiotes, depressive civilizations, sentient nebulæ, interstellar wars using colliding planets as weapons, whole galaxies fused into a single consciousness. They culminate (SPOILER, SORT OF) in a vision of an endless succession of universes as experimental, increasingly complex works of art. You can see how Arthur C. Clarke, in novels like "Childhood's End" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," is trying to replicate the mind-expanding effect of these books' cosmos-encompassing vision.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"To Walk the Night" (1937) and "The Edge of Running Water" (1939) William Sloane. Cover artist tragically unknown.

"The man for whom this story is told may or may not be alive." That's the beginning of "The Edge of Running Water. The openings of both these novels are ominous and tantalizing, luring you in with the promise of mysteries and revelations to come. William Sloane was primarily an editor and publisher; he wrote only two novels in his spare time, both of which are elegant, atmospheric classics of the genre. Though which genre, exactly, is hard to say; Stephen King wrote that "what makes them fascinating and takes them to a higher level is their complete (and rather blithe) disregard of genre boundaries." This is also part of what makes them so effective and creepy; it's hard to know what the hell even happened in these books [SPOILERS]: is "To Walk the Night" about a ghost or succubus, or a being from another dimension? Is "The Edge of Running Water" about a black hole or a portal to the world of the dead? They're also, unlike most of the sf of the time, psychologically subtle, their paranormal premises covering complex (and not entirely healthy) psychosexual dramas. Spooky, moody, and beautiful: you'll stay up late reading these books, and may need to turn all the ligths on and check the closet twice, just to be sure.

"The Edge of Running Water" was adapted for film as "The Devil Commands" (1941) with Boris Karloff. Not bad.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), George Orwell. Cover design: Shepard Fairey (designer of the iconic Obama poster).

Everybody had to read this book in high school; it's cited by people of every possible political persuasion as a fable about the dangers of Communism, the dangers of Fascism, the post-9/11 security state, political correctness, the spying of the internet, the fake-news, post-truth era, etc. In the titular then-future, the world is divided into three perpetually warring totalitarian superstates. Life for the citizens of Oceania (comprising the western hemisphere and Great Britain, now called "Airstrip One") is one of unrelenting surveillance, propaganda, and historical revisionism—in other words, pretty much everyday reality in the Soviet bloc, ca. 1940s. Isaac Asimov wrote that the novel was a more accurate depiction of the year in which it was written, 1948, than the future, full of dingy, postwar-Britain details (e.g., constant drizzle, grime, soot, a lotta clogged drains), but science fiction is always a reflection of the time in which it's written. The fact that this novel remains perennially relevant is a function of Orwell's brilliance as an analyst and critic of the techniques of modern propaganda. The word "Orwellian" is still used to describe things like the NSA's and social media's data mining, ubiquitous security cameras and facial-recognition technology, official oxymorons like "the Clear Skies Act" (deregulating polluters) and "Shock and Awe" (massive bombing), and disingenuous euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture) or "peacekeeping mission" (invasion). I still think of the "two minutes hate" every time someone is shamed online. Caveat: not an optimistic or redemptive book; if it does inspire you, it'll be with rage. "If you want a picture of the future," says one Inner Party member, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

There have been several film adaptations: one in 1954, for British TV, starring Peter Cushing; a 1956 version directed by Michael Anderson (who later directed "Logan's Run") and allegedly funded by the CIA (!); and, of course, one in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Foundation" (1951), "Foundation and Empire" (1952) and "Second Foundation" (1953), Isaac Asimov. Cover designs: Don Ivan Punchantz.

I'm counting only the first three novels in this series, which represent the entirety of Asimov's original conception back in the Forties; the later sequels and prequels, written in the Eighties, were done for the bucks, and never held much interest for me. I was totally absorbed by this trilogy when I was fourteen, but a friend of mine who read it in his forties complained: "It's just men explaining things to each other." Fair enough description, I guess, but not atypical of science fiction of the Golden Age, and besides, sf of that era was never about characters but about ideas—big ideas, mind-expanding ideas, like the premise of this series: the imaginary science of psychohistory, which uses the principles of psychology and statistics to predict future history. The inventor of psychohistory, foreseeing the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire, establishes a scientific Foundation on an isolated planet at the edge of the galaxy to act as a bulwark of knowledge against the ensuing dark age and eventually become the basis of a second empire. (He also establishes a mysterious Second Foundation, whose location is a secret and purpose unknown.) Asimov's ambition was to illustrate the causes of a high civilization's collapse, as outlined in Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in science-fictional form, but he ingeniously throws a wrench into his own schema by introducing a mutant conqueror whose psychic powers wreck the psychohistoric plan. The various plot twists are (supposedly) psychohistorically inevitable, but nonetheless suspenseful throughout. An insterstellar epic spanning centuries, set millennia in the future, it would influence the tropes of space opera for decades to come: galactic empires, hyperspace, blasters and force shields—even a world-city capitol planet. (Any of this sound familiar?)

Supposedly being adapted as a series by Apple.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Fahrenheit 451" (1953) Ray Bradbury. Cover art by Joe Mugnaini.

Bradbury is best known for his short stories: if I could convince myself to call it a novel I'd have included the collection "The Martian Chronicles" on this list. But this, one of his two novels (the other, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," is dark fantasy), has become a classic and entered our discourse: you probably had to read this in high school as a fable about censorship. Guy Montag, a "fireman" who enjoys his work burning books, loses his mask of happy complacency when he meets a girl from the eccentric family next door named Clarisse, then smuggles a single book of poetry home with him from a burning, and falls in with an underground of fugitive readers. In retrospect, it's a shockingly prescient book: everyone drowning out reality with earpiece radios or locked indoors at night watching wall-sized screens showing interactive soap operas, vicious slapstick, live police chases and true-crime dramatizations that invite viewers to help catch the criminal; hysterical censoriousness, thuggish propaganda, newspapers dying for lack of readership; routine overdoses, teenagers killing each other for fun, the government bombing someone on the other side of the planet. Remind you of anything? And it was all written at the same time "I Love Lucy" was on. Ray Bradbury's best known as a romantic, a poet of the space age, but his dreamy, lyrical style belies a bitter, satiric depiction of an anti-intellectual dystopia that looks more realistic every day. "People ask me to predict the future," he wrote, "when all I want to do is prevent it."

Made into a flawed but beautiful film by Francois Truffaut starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, and a forgettable one by HBO (which is too bad: it starred "Black Panther" antihero Michael B. Jordan and the always-excellent Michael Shannon, villain of "Man of Steel" and "The Shape of Water").
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Childhood's End" (1953) Arthur C. Clarke. Cover art by Richard Powers.

You know that famous scene where titanic starships suddenly appear in the skies over all the major cities of Earth, announcing the arrival of a superior civilization and the end of human history? That's not from "Independence Day" or "V" or even "The Day the Earth Stood Still"; they all borrowed it from "Childhood's End." Arthur C. Clarke would become best known for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on "2001: A Space Odyssey," but this is his greatest novel. Aliens known as "The Overlords" take benign custodianship of the Earth and transform it into a utopia—establish a just world government, end hunger, poverty, crime and sickness, disprove all the world's religions, and ban cruelty to animals—but they won't physically reveal themselves. What do they have to hide? And what are their ultimate intentions? I can't tell you too much more about the plot because its twists and revelations are part of what make this book so astonishing. Its ending transcends paltry obsolete human emotions like "happy" or "sad"; it feels bigger than you can grasp. Mind, as they say, blown.

Miniseries adaptation by SyFy, starring "Game of Thrones'''s Charles Dance as Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth. Fairly faithful, just not very good; don't spoil the book for yourself by watching it first.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"More Than Human" (1953) Theodore Sturgeon. Cover art: Richard Powers.

Theodore Sturgeon, known for Sturgeon's Law ("ninety percent of everything is crap") and introducing the Prime Directive in his scripts for the original "Star Trek," was one of the most prolific short story writers and most respected prose stylists in science fiction. He was also one of the first writers in the genre to deal with sexuality in anything other than a bug-eyed-alien-attacking-girl-in-a-metal-bikini way, including then-taboo subjects like homosexuality. In this, his most famous novel, five characters, each of whom is individually somehow stunted or outcast—mentally retarded, suicidal, orphaned—but also possesses some paranormal power, must "blesh" (a portmanteau of "blend" and "mesh") together into a single being, one that's greater than any of them alone. The book's form follows its content, at first told in discrete chapters with no apparent connection, the plot only coalescing as its characters do. Like "Childhood's End," published the same year, "More Than Human" concerns the next developmental breakthrough and future evolution of humankind—into a species Sturgeon called "homo gestalt." It was an influential book in its time; I recently saw it displayed among the artifacts in an exhibition about a black lesbian artists' collective of the 60s-70s.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Stars My Destination" (also published as "Tiger! Tiger!") (1957) Alfred Bester. Cover art: Richard Powers. (This is the second cover by Richard Powers on this list and won't be the last. Powers, who did the cover illustration for what seems like every sf paperback in the 1960s, was an amazing illustrator, influenced by surrealists like Yves Tanguy and Matta; it's well worth checking out all his work: http://www.richardmpowers.com . There's also a book collection of his art: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Richard-Powers-Paper-Tiger/dp/1855858908)

He was marooned in space. A passing ship ignored him and left him to die. But he didn't. He survived, honed his mind with yoga, bioengineered his body into a killing machine, had a tiger tattooed on his face, and now he is going to Kill. Them. All. Essentially, "The Count of Monte Cristo" in space. Ordinary working guy Gully Foyle becomes the antihero at the center of an interplanetary plot involving megacorporations at war for control of the solar system, asteroid-belt cargo cults, a secret superweapon called "PyrE," teleportation, telepathy, and revenge. A progenitor of New Wave and cyberpunk sf.

Bonus factoid: Author Alfred Bester, who also worked for DC Comics, wrote the "Green Lantern Oath."

Never adapted into a film, although several scripts have been written.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"A Canticle for Leibowitz" (1959) Walter M. Miller. Cover art: Milton Glaser.

The great religious science fiction novel. The story takes place in three separate epochs, centuries apart: one in what seems like Medieval times but proves to be a post-atomic-holocaust dark age; the second during a new Renaissance of science and technology; and the third on the brink of a second nuclear war. It's set among the monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz, among whose holy relics are a grocery list and an electrical engineering diagram: the latter becomes the document that sparks a second industrial revolution. Each section ends with a lyric refrain about the vultures, who reliably thrive by the grace of human aggression. Despite its bleak view of humanity doomed to destroy itself again and again, it's a humane, forgiving, even funny book: Miller writes than any aliens would easily size humanity up as "a race of impassioned after-dinner speakers." A meditation on technology as the irresistible apple of Eden, the inevitable recurrence of sin, and the possibility of redemption in a fallen world.

Adapted into a TV miniseries by the BBC in 1993.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Starship Troopers" (1959) Robert Heinlein. Covert art: Jerry Robinson.

Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein were known as the "Big Three" authors of sf's golden age. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" is his most conceptually ambitious novel, about a human boy raised by Martians who returns to Earth, bringing with him his alien customs, such as free love and funerary cannibalism. It became famous as a bible of the 60s counterculture (for a while the word "grok" was in colloquial usage), but in retrospect it's just too long, possibly unreadable. "Starship Troopers" was originally submitted as a "juvenile" novel—what today we would call YA—but its violence and politics got it rejected and published as an adult novel instead. An interstellar war story where armored soldiers drop from spaceships onto other planets to battle alien insects, interspersed with didactic classroom scenes wherein Heinlein expounds his political philosophy. Although the politics of "Starship Troopers" are, um, "controversial" (as in, pretty frankly fascistic—e.g., Heinlein advocates a military state where only veterans can vote) it's hard to argue it's not a good read; he creates an austere, brutal future that you don't have to like to believe.

Dutch director Paul Verhoven adapted this as a satire of American militarism so straight-faced that audiences could (and mostly did) take it at face value, as rousing, jingoistic, warmongering (it's mentioned only in passing that it's the humans, not the aliens, who are the invaders/aggressors).
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Solaris" (1961) Stanislaw Lem.

Polish writer Stanislaw Lem is one of the great sf authors, who's been likened to the literary giants of the genre like Olaf Stapledon for his serious philosophical speculation. He wrote many brilliant, imaginative, hilarious and sad novels—"The Futurological Congress" and "Fiasco" are two of my favorites—but "Solaris" is his most famous book. It's about the crew of a space station in orbit around the title planet, observing its possibly-sentient world ocean. An entire branch of science, "Solaristics," has developed to study this alien being, but it's mostly limited to a taxonomy of the various formations the ocean creates; their purpose and/or meaning are still obscure. The scientists are tormented by appartitions based on their own guilt and fears, haunted by doubles of dead relatives, friends and lovers. Whether Solaris is truly conscious, what it might want or intend, whether it's trying to communicate with them or torture them, remain, to the end, unknown. A vision of humanity as inadequate to comprehending the truly alien—or even reality. "We have no need of other worlds," Lem writes. "We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds."

Filmed three times: in 1968 for Russian TV by Boris Nirenburg; in 1972, by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (a great and moving and beautiful film, but long, slow, and full of ponderous Russian philosophizing); and in 2002, by Steven Soderbergh (not as ambitious as Tarkovsky's, but intelligent, well-acted, and stylish).
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Man in the High Castle" (1962) Philip K. Dick. Cover art: Richard Powers.

Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of novels, cranking them out (pun not accidental: he used amphetamines as a writing aid) in a couple weeks at a time, and many of them are great: "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" and "A Scanner Darkly," are just a few of my favorites. If he'd lived for another few decades he'd have become rich off movie options: his novels and stories have been the bases for "Blade Runner," "A Scanner Darkly," "Total Recall," "Minority Report," and "The Adjustment Bureau," among others. This is probably his most famous book, the best-known example of the alternate-history subgenre: it posits that, due to a few chance circumstances (including the assassination of FDR) the Axis powers won the Second World War. The story is set in a parallel-universe Cold War 1950s, in an occupied America divided between the Third Reich's east coast and Imperial Japan's west coast. It primarily takes place in the mostly-ignored no-man's-land between them, the Rocky Mountain states. It follows the marignal, unimportant people Dick loved to make his main characters: an antique store owner, a local artisan who makes handcrafted jewelry, his judo instructor ex-wife, and a Japanese trade official—all of whom are tangentially connected with a plot to avert a nuclear war between the rival fascist superpowers. Dick incessantly questions the nature of reality in his novels, and in this one his characters have discomfiting intimations that the reality they live in is an illusion; a novel-within-the-novel, a banned black-market bestseller called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," is an inspirational alternate history set in a world in which the Allies won the war.

Adapted into a miniseries by Amazon, which isn't bad, though it's hard to capture the distinctive strangeness of Dick.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"A Clockwork Orange" (1962) Anthony Burgess. Cover design: David Pelham.

Pity the first readers of this book who had to parse out its language for themselves; your edition will probably come with an appended glossary, translating the narrator's Russian-influenced argot ("horrorshow" = good, "gulliver" = head, etc.) into English. (It introduced the word "ultraviolence" into the vernacular.) This famous near-future dystopia is a story about juvenile delinquency and behaviorist conditioning, evil and free will. Protagonist/narrator Alex deLarge is leader of a teenage street gang who delights in beating, raping, and terrorizing random passerby. When Alex is arrested, he is made the test subject of a new conditioning technique that makes him nauseated at the thought of violence—and, as a side effect, at the sound of classical music. Anthony Burgess wrote this sensational novel in three weeks, after his wife was attacked by U.S. servicemen; he later looked back on the book as too didactic, and regretted its association with the infamous film version, which supposedly inspired copycat violence and was banned in the UK. The UK version includes an ill-advised 21st chapter in which Alex suddenly and inexplicably decides to grow up, settle down, and have children; in the better-known (and better) US version, he remains gleefully unredeemed.

Filmed, diabolically, by Stanley Kubrick in 1972. Definitely not for younger viewers. (There have been many more graphically violent films since, but not many more disturbing.)
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"A Wrinkle in Time" (1965) Madeline L'Engle. Designed by Ellen Raskin (author of "The Westing Game").

"It was a dark and stormy night," it begins. Although written for younger readers, "A Wrinkle in Time" is so intelligent, inventive, and influential that it belongs on any list of the best sf. The story of a brilliant, stubborn, homely (at least she thinks she is) girl named Meg Murray, her preternaturally gifted younger brother Charles Wallace, and their neighbor Calvin, who are swept up by three "witches" (actually former stars, and really more like angels) into an ancient cosmic Manichean battle against "the Black Thing," a vast, amorphous incarnation of Evil. They "tesser" (travel interdimensionally), to a world of seraphic centaurs/pegasi, a world of blind, tactile, tentacled healers, and to the dark world of Camazotz, a planet of totalitarian conformity controlled by a single telepathic brain called "It," where Meg's father is held captive. L'Engle's book is beloved by young readers, and fondly recalled by adults, for her flawed, human protagonists, the mind-expanding concepts she introduces, and her vision of a universal war between good and evil whose heroes are not presidents or generals but religious leaders, scientists, and artists, and whose ultimate weapon is love. L'Engle wrote four sequels: "A Wind in the Door" (1973), "A Swiftly Tilting Planet" (1978), "Many Waters" (1986), and "An Acceptable Time" (1989).

Two filmed adaptations have been made by Disney, neither good: one for TV (2003) and a theatrical release (2016).
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Dune" (1965) Frank Herbert. Cover art: John Shoenherr.

"The Lord of the Rings" of science fiction, exemplar of "world-building" in the genre. This is the first, and best, book in an apparently never-to-end series written by Frank Herbert and, later, by his son in collaboration with a coauthor. Herbert first conceived of this novel when he was working at the Oregon Dunes as a way of popularizing the then-little-known science of ecology through the depiction of a desert planet where water is as rare and precious as plutonium. It's also the only planet in the universe that produces a life-extending, consciousness-expanding spice, "melange" that makes interstellar travel possible, and is therefore the petroleum of this richly imagined world. But "Dune" is also a richly textured, multilayered story of Machiavellian political intrigue and messianic jihad, imagining a feudal interstellar empire with warring houses, a cabal of telepathic "witches" who manipulate genetics, adepts called "mentats" who've disciplined their brains to become human computers, a hidden race of cloaked nomadic warriors, the Fremen, and the unseen, mutated navigators of the spacing guild who "fold space" not through technology but the mind-altering spice "melange," the most valuable and fought-over resource in this universe. At the center of all this Byzantine intrigue is fifteen-year-old Paul Atredes, son of a Duke, destined to become the prophesied messiah of the desert Fremen, and possibly the "Kwisatz Haderach," the superbeing whom the Bene Gesserit have been contriving to breed for generations. And I actually forgot to mention the thousand-foot-long sandworms. A monumental work of imagination.

Adapted as a beautiful but incomprehensible (unless you've memorized the book) movie by David Lynch in 1982 and a more straightforward, much less interesting one by the SciFi channel. Apparently a new one is in production, helmed by Dennis Villeneuve (director of the superb "Arrival," which was based on a Ted Chaing story, and the gorgeous but disappointing "Blade Runner 2049"). Here's hoping, but I have my doubts. Basically, an unfilmable book.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Lord of Light" (1967) Roger Zelazny. Cover art: Howard Bernstein.

Long ago, explorers from Uruth (Earth) crash-landed on this new world and established themselves as gods (a premise shared by the Strugatsky brothers' novel "Hard to Be a God"). They've given themselves seemingly divine powers through mutation, created enhanced, idealized images of themselves like avatars, and learned to transfer their minds into new bodies in a form of reincarnation. They've styled themselves specifically after Hindu dieties: the main character is Mahasamatman, though "he preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, and called himself Sam"; other characters include Yama, the god of death, and Kali, goddess of destruction. The inhabitants, mostly descendants of the gods' ancient selves, are kept in check by the threat of reincarnation as an animal. (One character, Tak, once the archivist of the gods and Sam's biological son, has been reincarnated as an ape.) It's a pretty sweet setup for them until Sam, freshly reincarnated after having spent several centuries mulling things over while in the form of an orbiting radiation belt, decides to rename himself Siddartha and introduces a form of Buddhism, disrupting the caste system they've instated and inciting a revolution. Like the "Foundation" books and "Childhood's End," it's an episodic novel, (some of its chapters were originally published in sf magazines as separate novellas), its sections set centuries apart. Definitely an artifact of its era, with that distinctive vintage-60s combination of trippy mysticism and silliness.

A film adaptation was in development in the seventies, for which legendary comic-book artist Jack Kirby drew fantastic illustrations (https://io9.gizmodo.com/behold-the-psychedelic-glory-of-jack-kirbys-argo-art-i-1712647027). Although the film was never made, the script and Kirby's drawings were used as props to lend credibility to the hoax film production the CIA used as a ruse to sneak American hostages out of Iran in 1980, as depicted in the movie "Argo." An (actual) TV adaptation is now supposedly in development.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Slaughterhouse-Five" (1968) Kurt vonnegut, Jr. Cover design: Paul Bacon.

Kurt Vonnegut began his career writing straight science fiction: his novel "Cat's Cradle" is a parable about the amorality of science, whose central conceit is a new molecular form of ice that doesn't melt at room temperature, which is used as a doomsday weapon. But this was the book that made him a major American literary figure. Based on Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war during the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II, "Slaughterhouse-Five" leavens that tragedy with black humor and absurd science-fiction elements—the main one being that the protagonist "has come unstuck in time," ricocheting between different moments of his life seemingly at random, which is the rationale for the book's fragmented, nonlinear narrative. At one point he's abducted and placed in an interstellar zoo (with a kidnapped porn star as his mate) by aliens who look like toilet plungers and don't experience linear time, but see all moments as simultaneous. (Alan Moore would borrow this perception of time for his character Dr. Manhattan's point of view in "Watchmen.") Maybe it was only from this detached, unsentimental perspective that Vonnegut could stand to write about the atrocities he'd seen. Every time there's a death in this novel, whether of a POW or a flea, he adds the reflexive benediction: "So it goes."

Filmed by director George Roy Hill ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") in 1972. Surprisingly not bad, given the difficulty of adapting its nonlinear narrative. Valerie Perrine (Miss Teschmacher from "Superman: the Movie") plays Billy's zoomate, Montana Wildhack.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Left Hand of Darkness" (1969) Ursula K. LeGuin. Cover art: Leo and DIane Dillon.

People talk about science fiction's prescience in terms of technology—H.G. Wells imagined the atom bomb, Arthur C. Clarke invented communications satellites—but not so much in terms of social developments. Add to the list of sf prophecies that Ursula K. LeGuin imagined what we'd call "gender fluidity" in 1969—the year of the Stonewall riots, to give you an idea of the social mores of the time. This novel imagines an emissary from Earth sent to Gethen, an arctic planet, to attempt to convince them to join an interstellar organization called the "Ekumen" (think a Starfleet representative sent to offer a planet admission into the Federation). Gethen's inhabitants are "ambisexual"—androgynous most of the time, becoming either male or female when they enter estrus—and their society is devoid of all the complications and politics of gender; partners share all the responsibilities of parenting, there is no seduction or rape, and all interactions are governed by an elaborate code of protocol. The human visitor is initially suspicious of his seemingly effeminate state liaison (and his own typically male mannerisms cause the Gethenians to regard him as some sort of pervert), but over the course of the novel's events, including exile, imprisonment, and a long, desperate trek across a frozen waste, he comes to rely on, trust, and finally to love him. A serious literary novel less intereted in exploring the implications of technology than thought-experiments about gender, culture, and religion.

There have been stage and radio adaptations; a TV production is in development, on which Le Guin herself was a consultant before her death.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Roadside Picnic" (1972) Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Cover art, once again, by Richard Powers.

If you loved Jeff VanderMeer's "Annihilation" (and wonder why it's not on this list) it's because everything interesting in it was inspired by this book. The Strugatskys were Russian brothers who wrote sf novels in Soviet Union. (They also wrote "Hard to Be a God," which has been adapted several times, most recently by Aleksey German into a movie that some people call great.) SF was one of the genres in which Communist bloc writers could safely address political and social issues (just as it was one of the places issues of race could be discussed in American media). "Roadside Picnic" is set in a town on the periphery of a place called "The Zone," a restricted area where aliens landed and then disappeared again years ago, their purpose unknown, leaving behind artifacts of a technology so advanced that humans can't understand their true function or operating principles; we just take advantage of their side effects—e.g., eternal batteries, perpetual motion machines. The dangers of the Zone are mysterious but lethal: a shimmer in the air, a silvery cobweb, glowing slime. Someone who takes a misstep or brushes against the wrong thing might find, hours later, that their bones are dissolving. (Imagine a couple of cavemen wandering around Manhattan: they wouldn't even know what to be afraid of, or why.) The Zone reanimates local corpses, creates artificial beings, and produces mutants, like the protagonist's daughter, who is covered with golden fur. The protagonist is a "stalker," who sneaks into the Zone to retrieve valuable artifacts for the black market. The grail or MacGuffin of the novel is a fabled golden sphere that's reputed to grant its finder's innermost wish. Despite all its heady concepts, the texture of the book is grubby, set in seedy bars, its characters all scrabbling mercenaries or harried bureaucrats. Ostensibly a satire of the degradations of capitalism, "Roadside Picnic" shares with the novels of the Strugratskys' fellow Eastern-bloc novelist Stanislaw Lem a vision of humanity as incommensurate to the mysteries of the universe, with no hope of fathoming alien intelligence.

Basis for the movie "Stalker" (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky, which, like the same director's "Solaris," is not only one of the great sf films of all time but one of the great films, period. Also like "Solaris," it's not for the faint of attention span. The novel and movie were also inspirations (along with the real-life Chernobyl disaster) for the bleak, atmospheric video game "S.T.A.L.K.E.R."
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Forever War" (1972) Joe Haldeman. Cover art: Murray Tinkelman.

A somber response to the gung-ho "Starship Troopers," about an interstellar war in which, because of the effects of time dilation, the soldiers are always fighting with obsolete weapons, and find themselves alienated from an Earth that's changed beyond recognition in their absence (e.g., they no longer understand the language, and find themselves discriminated against for being heterosexual)—a metaphor for the experience of Vietnam veterans. Haldeman, who received a purple heart over there, is cynical about the military as only a vet can be: the soldiers' hi-tech battle armor is almost as deadly to the wearer as the enemy, they have to fight their climactic battle with medieval weaponry, and (SPOILER), after centuries of conflict it emerges that the triggering event of the war was a misunderstanding that the government used as a casus belli (see: the Gulf of Tonkin incident). By the end of the book you feel light-years away from where you began; its protagonists are millennia old, stripped of any ideals, as freakish to their fellow Earthlings as aliens, and profoundly alone. Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the title has entered into common usage to refer to those ongoing conflicts: journalist Dexter Filkins titled his book on the "war on terror" the same thing, and I recently saw the phrase in a headline about Trump's trip to Iraq.

"The Forever War" was to have been adapted as a film by "Blade Runner" screenwriter David Peoples and its director, Ridley Scott, but the option expired. Currently being adapted by Jon Spaihts, screenwriter of "Prometheus," "Dr. Strange," and Dennis Villeneuve's forthcoming "Dune." We'll see.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Dhalgren" (1975) Samuel R. Delaney. Cover art: Dean Ellis.

I'm not sure anyone really knows what happens in "Dhalgren." This much we can say: a man arrives in a city; strange things occur. William Gibson called it "a riddle that was never meant to be solved." I wish you luck.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Kindred" (1979) Octavia Butler. Cover art by Laurence Schwinger.

I was doubtful about "Kindred" at first—the dialogue felt too clunky and expository for me (which is frankly characteristic of a lot of classic sf)—but once I got involved in the story it engrossed me, appalled and infuriated me, and at some points became almost too painful to read. What happens when you transport a modern Afriecan-American woman, an intellectual and progressive writer, married to a white man, from 1970s Los Angeles back to antebellum Maryland? Dana seems to be somehow bound, across the miles and centuries, to a white boy named Rufus, who owns—and impregnated—her great-great grandmother. How to survive in a time and place in which any white man can whip or rape her or sell her into slavery? It's too dangerous for her not to assimilate into this hateful culture, but even more horrifying if she does. When her husband is accidentally drawn into the past wth her, it starts to change the way they see each other: even though he's a sensitive and sympathetic white man, he can't really see or experience slavery in the same way that she does. Like the best sf, "Kindred" uses its fantastic conceit to illuminate moral and political issues in a way that would be impossible in any other genre, dramatizing the psychological dynamics of slavery—the mechanisms by which people adapt to it, and the way it deforms the souls of its perpetrators as well as its victims—and the insidious, intimate connections between the institutional racism of the old South and the less overt racism of today. Forty years after its publication, it's (unfortunately) as timely as ever.

It's been adapted as an online audio play and a graphic novel, but not, as of yet, a movie.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Riddley Walker," Russel Hoban (1980). Cover illustration: Quentin Blake (who also illustrated 1970s-80s editions of Roald Dahl). This is a limited-edition Folio Society printing, but it's far and away the best cover.

Russel Hoban is also known as the author of one of the odder, darker classics of children's literature, "The Mouse and His Child" (made into an equally odd, dark animated movie in 1977). "Riddley Walker," his post-apocalyptic sf novel, is similarly melancholy. Like "A Clockwork Orange," it's written in its own language (its first line: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen") but, as in ACO, it becomes intelligible once you acclimate to it, plus some later editions include a glossary. It's set two thousand years after a nuclear war, in an iron-age England where people scavenge leftover metals from the ruins of our ancient civilization and predatory packs of wild dogs are a serious threat. Its protagonist, a 12-year-old boy, becomes a sort of tribal shaman after his father's death, interpreting the Punch & Judy-type puppet shows put on by the church/government, which tell a mythic history garbling the stories of atomic war and Saint Eustace. As in "A Canticle for Leibowitz," humanity seems to be on the verge of rediscovering the evil secret of atomic energy. This novel directly influenced the post-apocalyptic worlds in David Mitchell's novel "The Cloud Atlas" as well as George Miller's films "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior," whose inhabitants also have their own dialects.

Hoban adapted the novel as a play, which has been staged several times, but so far no film adaptation.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Neuromancer" (1984) William Gibson. Cover art: Judith Lagerman.

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That's the famous first line of this breakout first novel by William Gibson. The 80s is when sf got fashionably "dark and gritty"—e.g., "Blade Runner," "Brazil," and "Akira" onscreen, "The Dark Knight," "Watchmen," and Mr. X" in comics—and this is futurist noir, set among the sleazy high-tech underworld of the fictional Chiba City, Japan. A drug-addicted computer hacker whose central nervous system has been poisoned to prevent him from ever again accessing the internet is approached (at gunpoint) by a literal femme fatale, a cyborg "razorgirl" with retractable steel claws and mirrored lenses implanted over her eye sockets, whose boss is offering him an antidote in exchange for a hack job. That's the very noirish premise of a typically tangled noir plot that involves hackers, gangsters, AIs, ninjas, the Russian military and the "Turing police." But, like most noirs, "Neuromancer" isn't so much about plot as about texture, atmosphere, and the tough, cool beat-poetry of the language. It's the novel that popularized the terms "cyberspace" and "the matrix," and defined a new genre: "cyberpunk." Some regret that this relatively conventional genre supplanted the more experimental sf of the New Wave, but, for better or worse, this novel defined much of the sf of the next decades, though none of its imitators ever really equalled it.

Obviously a big influence on sf films from "The Matrix" to "Ghost in the Shell." Yet, despite all its cinematic qualities, it's never been adapted for film. Supposedly Tim Miller, director of "Deadpool," is set to direct a version to be produced by Simon Kinberg, of the X-Men franchise.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Handmaid's Tale" (1985), Margaret Atwood. Cover by Fred Marcellino.

By the later decades of the 20th century it was becoming respectable for "serious" literary writers to write science fiction. During the ascendancy of the evangelical right and the "Moral Majority" in the Reagan era, and their renewed attack on reproductive rights, Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote this novel about a repressive religious sexual dystopia. It's set in a future in which at least some of what was once the United States is now the Republic of Gilead, a paramilitary theocratic regime. Women are once again chattel: not allowed to have jobs, handle money, or read or write. The protagonist, Offred (her name means "belonging to Fred"), once a college-educated professional, is a servant used for breeding (most women are now infertile). The grim status quo gets complicated when her master surreptitiously starts seeing her outside their sanctioned ritual rape (at which his wife is always present), gambling with her at Scrabble for favors, information, and freedom. Margaret Atwood has said that she invented nothing in this novel: every feature of this imaginary society has, at some time in history, in one culture or another, actually happened. She's announced plans for a sequel, to be called "The Testament."

A film adaptation was made in 1990, written by playwright Harold Pinter, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye dunaway, and Robert Duvall. A TV series adaptation starring "Mad Men"'s Elizabeth Moss—by all accounts a good (and regrettably timely) one—is currently airing on Hulu.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
The "Mars" Trilogy: "Red Mars" (1992) "Green Mars" (1993) and "Blue Mars" (1996) Kim Stanley Robinson. Covert art: Don Dixon.

Arthur C. Clarke called the first book of this trilogy "The best novel on the colonization of Mars ever written," but the series is far more than that: they're great American political novels. Robinson uses Mars as a template to try to imagine a realistic utopia: a more just and sustainable world built by credible, flawed human beings, with all their factions and infighting, aggression and greed. It has a cast of larger-than-life but complex, familiar characters you'll want to talk about as if you were gossiping about friends behind their backs: charismatics, cynics, savants, fanatics, capitalists, environmental extremists, Machiavellians, melancholics, mystics and tricksters. The books' science is so detailed and believable you can tell the author spent a lot of time talking to scientists in different disciplines, and his descriptions of Mars are so vivid and specific it's hard to believe he didn't get a writer's residency to live on the red planet for a year. The books span centuries of future history, encompassing colonization, assassinations, constitutional conventions and revolutions, battles over terraforming, an attack on a space elevator, and asteroids used as weapons. Due to genetic rejuvenation/longevity treatments, people can now live for centuries, so many of the same characters span all three books and 1700 pages, and by the time you close the last one you'll feel as if you've lived at least one lifetime among them, and are saying farewell to beloved old friends.

Various TV series have been planned; currently SpikeTV owns the rights.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Sparrow," (1996) Mary Doria Russel.

A Jesuit priest returning from Alpha Centauri, the only survivor of a mission sent to contact the inhabitants after Earth received radio signals of music from that system, has had his hands surgically disfigured, and it's rumored that he was a kept as a concubine in an alien brothel. What really happened out there?

A novel, like "Solaris," about the difficulty (if not impossibility) of understanding the truly alien. Mary Doria Russel is interested in goodness in the same way that more ordinary writers and readers are interested in evil (for her, what motivated Nazis is less interesting than what motivated the people who risked their lives to hide others from them—see her novel "A Thread of Grace") and this book harks back to the religious missionaries of the past, whose good intentions were often misguided, went awry, or acted as cover for enormous crimes. Like "A Canticle for Leibowitz," this is religious science fiction that neither glorifies nor indicts the church, that has a deep compassion for (and a sense of humor about) hopelessly flawed humanity. A sequel, "Children of God," was published in 1998.

Rights to the novel were optioned by Brad Pitt's production company, but the author has since revoked them. AMC is supposedly developing a series.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"Infinite Jest" (1996), David Foster Wallace. Cover design: Steve Snider. (Have you noticed that the more respectable and literary a science fiction novel is, the more boring its cover has to be?)

No one ever talks about "Infinite Jest" as a science-fiction novel, but it certainly is one, among many other things: set in a satirical near-future when the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have joined to form "O.N.A.N.," (acronym for the Organization of North American Nations, but also a joke [google the Biblical "Onan"]), the U.S. has forcibly "exported" a swath of toxic territory to Canada (a swath now called "The Concavity" and aswarm with herds of giant hamsters and feral flaccid-skulled infants), and the conventional A.D. dating system has been replaced by Subsidized Time, wherein years are no longer numbered but named, like stadia, after corporate sponsors—e.g., "Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment." Split between an elite tennis academy and a halfway house for drug addicts, it's a novel about the modern American Scylla and Charybdis of achievement and addiction. Caveat: not for readers with atrophied attention spans. This is a thousand-plus-page novel with more complexly intertwined plotlines and characters than you can keep track of—not just tennis academy students and recovering alcoholics but avant-garde filmmakers, cross-dressing CIA agents, double-(or possibly triple-)agent Quebecois separatist terrorist wheelchair assassins, and a dimwit germophobe celebrity President(!)—a nonlinear narrative whose climactic scene actually occurs after the book ends, and about 200 pages of endnotes that you can't skip. Its central conceit is also an sf device: a "lethal entertainment," a movie so enthralling that anyone who sees it rewatches it endlessly until they soil themselves and eventually die of thirst and starvation—a cautionary fabled for the internet-addicted.

Unfilmable.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The Road" (2006), Cormac McCarthy. Cover design: Chip Kidd.

A post-apocalyptic novel by the greatest living writer of the English language, Cormac McCarthy. Some unknown cataclysm (meteor/comet strike? nuclear war?) has laid waste to the planet; no animals or vegetation remain, and the few human survivors are resorting to cannibalism. A man and his son (who are never named, lending it the feel of a fable) make their way through the ashen desolation of what was once America toward the sea, evading slaughter and barely fending off starvation, telling themselves stories about brave heroes who are still "carrying the fire." This is a late novel by McCarthy, and his once-ornate prose has become as bare as the landscape of the story. But for all its uncompromising brutality (it's not for the faint of heart, or of stomach), this is ultimately a novel about love. The father says of his young son: "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." McCarthy uses his bleak sf scenario to pose the question of whether love can matter in a world where everything dies.

A very good movie adaptation, starring Viggo Mortensen, was made in 2009.
The Great Science Fiction Novels
"The City and The City" (2009) China Miéville. Cover design:

The title's repetitive echo is deliberate: this detective novel is set in two cities that are actually the same city. Their/its citizens all live in the same physical location but occupy two different cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, each with its own politics, culture, architecture and customs. They're not interdimensionally or temporally superimposed or anything: it's a matter of purely mental segregation and suppression. Citizens of one city are conditioned from childhood not to see the other city or its people all around them. Noticing the other city or interacting with its inhabitants, called "breaching," is a taboo and a serious crime, enforced by a Draconian secret police simply called "Breach." It's possible to visit the other city, but you first have to pass through customs and cross the border, after which you can visit the street you live on and see it anew, though now your own home will be invisible to you and various new houses and stores will be revealed. Most writers would be clever to pull off such a contrived conceit for the length of a short story, but in Miéville's hands it's kept as credible as any number of equally absurd and artificial real-world customs. The vaguely Hebrew and Arabic names of the two cities strongly suggest one obvious parallel, but the metaphor can be applied to any number of political or psychological situations, like the way we walk past the homeless every day. Not until near the end of the book do we realize that the rest of the world regards Besźel/Ul Qoma as a ridiculous, provincial little place.

Adapted into a four-part miniseries by the BBC in 2018. (I haven't seen it yet, but it's gotten good reviews.)
The Great Science Fiction Novels
cat tax 

(Haven't actually read this, but it's by Lloyd Alexander, author of the "Prydain" books, a great YA fantasy series based on Welsh mythology, so it's probably pretty good.)

TL:DR - If this was TL for you I wouldn't bother trying a book