K doesn't know and can't find out as he is sent on an increasingly absurd wild-goose chase through the labyrinthine sub-faculties of the legal system. A year later, he is executed - "Like a dog! Incomplete and published posthumously, like all Kafka's three big novels, The Trial captures the essence of moral guilt like no other novel in the 20th century. Watching Orson Welles's film adaptation with Anthony Perkins as K is no substitute for experiencing what one critic memorably described as "not the literary presentation of a nightmare, but its literal transcription".
PO Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop. Begun as a short story, expanded to a novella, and finally published as a novel, Keyes's science fiction fable has won numerous prizes and been successfully adapted into drama, film, and popular music. The story has two central characters. Algernon is a mouse, whose intelligence is surgically enhanced to the level of rodent genius. The same technique is applied to Charlie Gordon, a mentally subnormal fast-food kitchen hand.
The narrative, told by Charlie as his IQ soars, traces the discontents of genius. Alas, the effects of the surgery are shortlived, and the end of the story finds Charlie back in the kitchen - mentally challenged but, in his way, happy. Being smart is not everything. The most powerful, and in places interestingly autobiographical, of King's horror stories is based, as are many in the genre, on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.
Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and failed schoolteacher, racked with remorse for breaking his son Danny's arm while drunk, takes the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in remote Colorado. The hotel is haunted by unexorcised demons from brutal murders committed there years ago. Torrance is possessed and turns, homicidally, on his wife and child. Danny, gifted with telepathic "shining" power, saves himself and his mother.
Jack is beyond salvation. The film was brilliantly filmed by Stanley Kubrick in A young married woman, Melanie, scours antiques shops to furnish her new home and comes back with an old chaise-longue, which is perfect apart from an unsightly reddish-brown stain. She falls asleep on it and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, an unfamiliar time - and an unfamiliar body. At first she assumes she must be dreaming. But gradually she starts to piece together the story of Milly, the young Victorian woman in the last stages of consumption whom she has apparently become, and the nature of the disgrace she has brought on the household run by her fearsomely stern elder sister.
Why does the sight of the doctor make her pulse beat faster? And can she find a way back to her own life? AN Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop.
This is frequently judged the best ghost story of the Victorian period. On the sudden death of her father, Maud, an heiress, is left to the care of her Uncle Silas, until she comes of age. Sinister in appearance and villainous by nature, Silas first plans to marry Maud to his oafish son, Dudley who is, it emerges, already married.
When this fails, father and son, together with the French governess Madame de la Rougierre, conspire to murder their ward with a spiked hammer. Told by the ingenuous and largely unsuspecting Maud, the narrative builds an impending sense of doom. Popularised by Tarkovsky's masterly film adaptation and Soderberg's rather more stolid second attempt , Solaris is by far Lem's best-known novel - a humane, intriguing attempt to posit the nature of alien intelligence, and how contact with it might actually play out. Lem's faraway world of Solaris is a sea of psychoactive imagery, making it an effective tool to plumb the contradictions of human consciousness as it reacts to those who would study it.
Lem never liked Tarkovsky's treatment of his story: not enough of the science made it to the screen. Andrew Pulver Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop. Set in a near-future in a disintegrating city, where lawlessness prevails and citizens scratch a living from the debris, this dystopia is the journal of an unnamed middle-class narrator who fosters street-kid Emily and observes the decaying world from her window. Despite the pessimistic premise and the description of civilisation on the brink of collapse, with horror lurking at every turn, the novel is an insightful and humane meditation on the survivability of the species.
EB Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop.
From Christopher Finch's feature about Paolozzi in New Worlds 174
A Voyage to Arcturus sold only a few hundred copies at the time of its first publication, but has subsequently been recognised as one of the most striking novels of imaginative fiction, Colin Wilson ranking it the "greatest novel of the 20th century". On the surface it tells of Maskull's travels on the planet Tormance, passing through exotic landscapes, finding love, murder and monsters, but through these themes Lindsay explores the meanings and origins of life and the universe.
Keith Brooke Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop. The world has entered the Second Enlightenment after the Faith Wars. In the Republic of Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson investigates the murders of religious leaders, suspecting atheists but uncovering a plot involving artificial intelligence. MacLeod's police procedural is a wise indictment of fundamentalism of all kinds and a stark delineation of how belief systems can corrupt, as well as being an incisive character study of a man coming to terms with the brutalities of his past. Mantel's ninth novel is a beyond-black comedy about seedy, exhausted millennium-era Britain and an obese, traumatised medium called Alison who is cursed with the gift of second sight.
Her familiars are the torturers - or projections - of her abusive childhood; they and the other lost souls of the spirit world clamour for Alison's attention as she tries to record her life story. It's a shocking, upsetting, often painful read; but Mantel's rich capacity for amusement and the sheer power of the writing save it from unremitting bleakness. JJ Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop. Before his current incarnation as a thriller writer specialising in conspiracy theories and psychopathic gore, Marshall Smith wrote forward-thinking sci-fi which combined high-octane angst with humour both noir and surreal.
His debut features a bizarre compartmentalised city with different postcodes for the insane, the overachievers, the debauched or simply those with unusual taste in interior design; as well as adventures in the realm of dreams, a deep love of cats and a killer twist. Robert Neville is the last man standing, the lone survivor in a world overrun by night-crawling vampires. But if history is written by the winners, what does that make Neville: the hero or the monster? Matheson's pacey fantasy charts its protagonist's solitary war against Earth's new inhabitants and his yearning, ongoing search for a fellow survivor.
The ending upends the genre's moral assumptions, forcing us to review the tale through different eyes. Clearly this was too much for the recent Will Smith movie adaptation, which ran scared of the very element that makes the book unique. XB Buy this book at the Guardian bookshop. In Maturin's extravaganza of transgression, beloved by authors from Byron and Balzac to Wilde and HP Lovecraft, the supernatural terrors of the Gothic novel begin to bleed into the psychological dread of Dostoevsky or Kafka.
Melmoth ranges the earth, looking for some poor soul to take over the pact he's made with the devil in exchange for extended life, as the narrative zips from London madhouse to Spanish dungeon to deserted Indian island. It's a fascinating mix of wild ideas threatening to run away from the author, and a new realism that takes in poverty, social depredation and very human cruelties.
Francie Brady is a rambunctious kid in s Ireland. He likes his best mate, Joe, and he hates his neighbour, Mrs Nugent, and he's always getting into trouble, and this is mainly because of Mrs Nugent. McCabe leads us on a freewheeling tour of a scattered, shattered consciousness, as Francie grows from wayward child to dangerous adult - nursing his grievances and plotting his revenge. Chances are that old Mrs Nugent has a surprise in store. McCarthy's most acclaimed novel is a tale from the near-future and a possible foretaste of things to come.
In stark, bare-bones prose, it describes a father and son's trudge across a nation devastated by an unspecified environmental calamity - an endless valley of ashes dotted with desperate, deadly survivors. These two figures are pushing south towards the sea, but the sea is poisoned and provides no comfort. In the end, all they have and, by implication, all the rest of us have is each other. Mercurio's first novel, Bodies, which he adapted for TV as Cardiac Arrest, lifted the lid off the NHS; his second makes a stellar leap to relate the adventures of Soviet flying ace turned cosmonaut Yefgenii Yeremin.
During the Korean war and then the space programme, Yeremin closes down his emotions even as his horizons expand, from the Arctic skies to the moon itself. The prose is suitably chilly yet strangely beautiful, with Mercurio's technical know-how lending the flight scenes a compulsive believability that lifts the reader, along with Yeremin, to the bounds of space and beyond. The second of his sprawling steampunk fantasies detailing the alternate universe of Bas-Lag follows Armada, a floating pirate city, in its search for a rip in reality.
Miller breathes new life into the Gothic antihero with his beautifully written Impac-winning first novel. Moving from rural England to Bedlam, Russia's snowbound tundra to the surreal court of Catherine the Great, the novel is at once a glittering tour of medicine and madness, cruelty and art, science and magic; and a delicate fable about how strange we are to one another. The most influential SF novel of the cold war era, chronicling the rise and fall of human civilisation, Miller's tripartite novel opens "Fiat Homo" with a post-atomic dark age. But as terraforming proceeds over the succeeding years, so discontent about the authoritarian control from Earth grows, and another rebellion starts to brew.
Coincidentally, a catastrophic environmental collapse on Earth paves the way for Martian independence, but with the additional problem of refugees from Earth. With Mars now a planet where people can live openly on the surface, attention starts to turn towards populating the rest of the solar system. A fourth volume, The Martians, is a collection of stories and other related pieces that link to the trilogy.
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It's a glorious and fascinating vision of the different ways that humanity might find to live among our different planets. The new scientific knowledge about Mars that we began to acquire during the s, and the scientific literacy of the Mars Trilogy, also inspired a number of other books about Mars. Wells, Stanley Weinbaum and others.
From the First World War onwards, as communist rule was established in Russia and fascism spread from Italy to Germany to Spain, writers started to explore the notion of dystopia. They were, invariably, states in which conformity was enforced, and in which individuality had no place. These dystopias were generally from authors not usually associated with genre, and were often though not always the only genre work that they produced.
And yet they are works that have lasted, work that have become recognised as classics not just of science fiction, but of world literature. The one that stands out for us is Brave New World, in part because it is more ambiguous about the world it portrays so that we end up having to think that bit more about the world presented to us.
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Written among the disturbances of the Great Depression, Brave New World proposes that stability is the ultimate need of civilisation, and the World State of the novel is peaceful, all needs are met, and everyone is happy. Yet it is a world in which children are not born but decanted, and everyone is assigned at birth to a place within society that permanently limits what they can do or where they can live. But thanks to the drug, soma, there is no dissent, no unhappiness. Into this perfectly ordered society is introduced John the Savage, who was born in a reservation outside the reach of the state and thus has none of the conditioning of every other citizen.
By the end f the book we are having to choose between the artificial happiness of the controlled state, or the unhappiness of the natural state: a choice that is harder than you might imagine. Nearly thirty years after writing the novel, Huxley brought out a non-fiction book, Brave New World Revisited, in which he argued that the world was approaching the state described in the novel more quickly than he had imagined.
And in his final novel, Island, which was a deliberate utopian counterpoint to Brave New World, with a society in which science was at the service of humanity rather than in control. Brave New World regularly appears on lists of the best novels of all time. It is a perfect example of the sort of dystopian fiction written between the s and s, and even after all this time it is an exciting and an engaging read. It is set in a world where people have numbers rather than names, everyone lives in glass houses so that nothing can be hidden from the state, and when there is a suggestion of rebellion our hero is subjected to a surgical procedure that makes him love the Great Benefactor.
Here, "Big Brother is Watching You", and when Winston Smith embarks upon a forbidden love affair it is an act of rebellion. But because the state sees everything, Smith is soon captured and subjected to the terrors of Room , which of course makes him love Big Brother. Zones of Thought. The Zones of Thought, which Vinge introduced in this novel, is one of the great original ideas in science fiction.
He imagines that the galaxy isn't uniform, in our part of the galaxy we are limited to the speed of light and our thought too is subject to similar restrictions. But if you go further in towards the centre of the galaxy you come to a zone that's even slower in terms of speed and thought, while if you go outward there are zones where speed and thought are much faster. The trouble is, of course, if you move from a faster zone into a slower zone, everything from travel to communication is hampered. When researchers in the Beyond happen to unleash an entity known as the Blight, all they can do is flee.
But that brings them into the Slow zone, where they crash onto the planet of the Tines, dog-like aliens that have a herd-wide group mind and a medieval level of technology. While the researchers on Tinesworld find themselves caught up in a war between rival packs, others out in the Beyond try to activate countermeasures that will halt the Blight.
A Fire Upon the Deep is one of those books that you either love or hate, but you have to read it. It's a book with an incredible vision of the galaxy and man's future among the stars, but it's also a rip roaring tale that doesn't get lost in all that "vastness". A perfect combination of story and ideas. A Fire Upon the Deep is a fantastic read for anyone who loves old school Space Opera with plenty of science mixed in.
Indeed, there's a hell of a lot thrown into the basket which includes physics, hard sci-fi technology, different races, galactic history, political wrangling and betrayals, conspiracy, a passionate war thriller, and even romance. It won the Hugo Award for best novel. For its entire history, science fiction has been written across the globe, emerging from all sorts of cultures and all sorts of languages.
But since the Second World War, those of us in English speaking countries can have been aware of hardly any science fiction that appeared in a different language. Fortunately, that is starting to change, but for a long time it was a very rare and exceptional science fiction writer whose work was translated into English.
Of these, easily the most important, and the most prolific, was Poland's Stanislaw Lem. Solaris is set aboard a human space station hovering just above an alien planet. After decades of research, the humans have realised that the ocean which covers the planet is actually a single organism, but they don't really understand what this may mean, and they have no way of communicating with it. What they don't realise is that the ocean is also observing them, and has the ability to transform their secret, guilty thoughts into actual figures.
So the scientists become haunted by characters from their past. The first English translation of Solaris, the only one that most of us will have read, was actually translated from the French version of the novel and was not approved by Lem himself. This can make the novel hard to read, particularly as the ideas that Lem expresses are so subtle and complex. Fortunately, a new translation has become available that is much better. Vorkosigan Saga.
There's a time for everything. There's a time to read heavy novels filled with grand ideas about space, the universe, and the destiny of mankind, and there's a time to read meaningful discourse on the human condition. Then there's just a time to sit back and read something that's just pretty damn fun without having to think complex thoughts.
Miles Vorkosigan is that read. This is heroic, romantic space opera that has the best character writing and development in the entire genre. The series follows Miles Vorkosigan, a young man with a crippled body but a brilliant mind, as he rises through the ranks, taking on and conquering impossible odds with genius strategy. This is character-driven military sf that mixes comedy and tragedy, politics and romance in various proportions.
Lots of action, lots of adventure, and always fun, this is one of science fiction's most endearing and enduring series. Miles is the definition of an underdog, a man who's bound by serious physical limitations but with a brilliant mind. It's the juxtaposition of Mile's clear physical inadequacies his bones are fragile as glass and he's under five feet tall and the strength of his mind that fuel the emotional conflicts of this novel.
Miles is forever the underdog, both in physical contests and strategic ones; he also faces serious prejudice because of his physical appearance, prejudice he is able to overcome through his own heroic efforts, though he must deal with them at an emotional level. To date, there are 16 novels in the sequence, plus a variety of novellas and short stories. If you want science fiction that's unfailingly entertaining, romantic and exciting and full of action, you really can't go wrong with Lois McMaster Bujold.
It's easy to understand why H. Wells has been called the father of science fiction. Starting with his first novel in , he wrote a sequence of books which effectively defined some of the most familiar and important aspects of science fiction, from time travel to alien invasion. Any one of these five early books would fully deserve a place in our list, but we have chosen to go with the first of them. The Time Machine was the first novel to consider the idea of time as a dimension, and therefore devise a machine that would allow you to travel at will through time.
The novel begins in late Victorian Britain, when a small group of acquaintances are summoned to meet at the house of an eccentric inventor. When he finally bursts in, late, the inventor has an amazing story to tell, for he has invented a device that will allow him to travel through time. He describes gradually speeding up, so that the sun crosses the sky faster and faster until it becomes a blur, a cinematic effect before cinema itself had done anything like that.
He sees future cities rise, devastating wars, buildings giving way to nature once more. Finally, hundreds of thousands of years in the future, he arrives in what seems like a peaceful meadow in which beautiful, innocent people, the Eloi, live in peace. But there is a dark secret in this world, the monstrous Morlocks who live underground and emerge only to feast upon the Eloi. The Time Traveller realises that the Morlocks are the distant descendants of the working class, forced into a dismal subterranean world by uncaring industry, while the Eloi are the descendants of the wealthy and carefree.
Escaping the Morlocks, the traveller goes further forward in time to witness the eventual death of the Earth, before returning to tell his story in Victorian London. There can be very few more influential works in the entire history of science fiction. Before this, time travel had been a form of magic or dream, but now it became something we could control. Effectively, modern science fiction starts here. Science fiction likes to play with history. Look how fragile our world is, just one small change there, or there, or there, and things would be ever so much worse.
Of course, because we like doing it doesn't always mean that we do it well. But here's a book that does it very well indeed.
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Robert E. Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg, and as a result the Union surrendered and the United States were split in two. In the south, the Confederacy is now a global powerhouse gearing up for a war with the German Union which won this version of the First World War , a war that will almost certainly be fought out in the territory of the United States. In the north, what remains of the United States is impoverished and kept subdued by the South.
The story concerns Hodge Backmaker, who arrives in the backwater of New York in hopes of getting into a university to study history. He is robbed of his possessions, and ends up working in a bookshop that is the cover for an underground organisation aimed at restoring the North. In time, Hodge comes to the attention of an eccentric community near the former battlefield of Gettysburg, a place where they have invented a time machine.
While studying the War of Southron Independence, Hodge is given the opportunity to travel back in time and witness the climactic battle. But when he gets there he accidentally delays the Confederate forces on their way to Little Round Top, and changes the outcome of the battle. There had been occasional works before that imagined a Southern victory in the Civil War, but it was only with Bring the Jubilee that this became one of the key themes in alternate histories.
This was one of the most influential of all alternate history novels, at the same time shaping the subgenre and showing how it should be done. It is the s. Joanna lives in a world much like our own, where the feminist movement is just beginning. In Jeannine's world, however, there was no Second World War because Hitler had been assassinated, but the Great Depression is still going on. Janet lives in a peaceful, utopian world known as Whileaway, where the mendied of a plague years ago and women give birth by parthenogenesis.
Jael is in a world where there is a literal battle of the sexes, a war that has been going on for 40 years already. The four are versions of the same woman, and when they are brought together it gives Russ the opportunity to dramatically examine the different relationships with men and with other women experienced in the various worlds. The novel displays both the anger and the irony that are characteristic of her work at its best. James Tiptree once wrote to her: "Do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neuron can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it?
Always controversial, The Female Man is credited with starting feminist science fiction. It is one of only three novels to have been awarded a Retrospective Tiptree Award. It is a time travel story of a young black woman who moves between contemporary California, and pre-Civil War Maryland, where she meets her ancestors, a black slave woman and a while slave owner. Ever since it was first published, Kindred has been a mainstay on both women's studies and black literature courses.
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By the s, the world was changing more rapidly than ever. The digital age foreseen by the cyberpunks was already becoming more complex as writers began pushing the ideas forward into areas of posthumanity and nanotechnology among others. At the forefront of this advance was Neal Stephenson, whose vision of the world incorporated a vast slew of notions ranging from economics to artificial intelligence to social structure and more.
All of these various elements came together in The Diamond Age. In a future that has been radically transformed by nanotechnologies and ever greater advances in computing, tribes or "phyles" have now become the dominant social structure. Phyles are groups of people brought together by shared values, ethnicity or cultural heritage, while old groupings like the nation state are withering away.
To be outside a phyle, therefore, is the lowest of the low. That is the fate of Nell, until she acquires a copy of an interactive book, The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, which was intended for someone else. By following the advice in the book, Nell is able to rise in the world until, by the end, she has founded her own phyle. Following Nell's story gives Stephenson the chance to show us all the various workings of this world, and how different it is both in technological terms and in its assumptions, from our own. If you want a vision of the future that will stop you dead in your tracks, a vision that is so brilliantly interconnected that it is absolutely convincing, then look no further.
From hive minds linked by nanotechnology to the limits of artificial intelligence, this is a world that is different from our own at every point, even though we can see how we might get there from here. Why It's on the List. But really it glitters like the title, this is a diamond of a novel, filled with incalculable riches.
For alternative choices, we'll stick with Stephenson's 3 other most regarded works. Each of these could take this spot on the list, and truth be told, your preference will depend on your personal taste as each of these books offers quite a different experience. If you want to start reading Stephenson, this is a good book to start with.
It's also a seminal work in the Cyberpunk genre. Is this even science fiction? Who Knows? Who cares? It's big and fat and brilliant. Ranging from code breaking during the Second World War to the establishment of a data haven in the present day, and including an entirely mythical island, it's a novel that's all about the ways that digital information and cryptography insinuate their way into our very lives. But when an alien spaceship appears overhead, a revolution in ideas is precipitated.
Okay, the writing is baggy at times and the made-up words can be infuriating and silly, but if you want ideas-driven science fiction, look no further, this is the place. Philosophy, mathematics, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, this is heady stuff. This is his 'best' most recent work.
Stephenson recently released in his Seveness -- an ambitious work but also overly dry. Anathem is a better work in every regard. Imperial Radch. Every so often, someone will come along and have a staggering impact on the genre with their very first novel. Think of William Gibson's Neuromancer, for example. Well the most recent case is Ann Leckie, who won just about every award going with this superb novel.
In a sense this is a very traditional space opera. There's an empire, the Radch, who are spreading their control across the galaxy. Their foot soldiers are made up of fragments of a starship's consciousness downloaded into human bodies, ancillaries, so that the members of any force are always in contact with each other and know what everyone is doing. But as the story opens, Breq is the only surviving ancillary of a starship, Justice of Toran, which was destroyed 19 years before.
The narrative shifts between Breq's quest to find out what happened, and then to seek justice, and the earlier events that led up to the destruction of the starship. One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that the Radch do not distinguish by gender, and so they use the same female pronouns for everyone. This can be disorienting, but it does have a very interesting effect in making us, in the main, neither see nor care whether individual caracters are male or female.
Clarke and Locus Awards, an unprecedented sweep, which shows how successfully the novel captured the zeitgeist. If winning all these awards in a grand sweep in isn't enough for you, then there's nothing I can say that will convince you. But might I add that it's a work that will blow your socks off. One of the things that has become apparent in recent years is the increasing sophistication of computer games. Without quite becoming the virtual reality that science fiction once predicted, they build worlds that are increasingly convincing, increasingly immersive.
And this, in turn, has had an effect on science fiction, which has built the game into the structure of near-future worlds. That's exactly what Ernest Cline, who has been dubbed "the hottest geek on the planet right now", did with Ready Player One. Wade is a poor orphan from the sticks who escapes the misery of his everyday life in the computer reality known as OASIS. Wade is the first person to discover the first of these keys, and becomes a hero within the world of the game. With a group of online companions complicated by their real life relationships Wade sets out to find the rest of the keys and win the big prize.
But he finds himself up against a multinational corporation who also seek control of OASIS, and will stop at nothing, including murder, to get there. Most people consider the Golden Age of Sci-Fi to begin in the late s and end around the mid-to-late '50s, and it did a lot of growing up in that time.
War does that. Said the guy who's never been in a war. What was once light-hearted, imaginative adventure became serious, hard science what-ifs colored by the bloody prism of world events. Utopias became dystopias; pulp traditions were shed and the space opera emerged, with John W. Campbell and the Futurians piloting the ship. Also a great name for a band. Across the second half of the s, though, something started happening. Stories got weirder. Prose got prettier. It got harder to tell whether a book should be considered genre work or literary fiction.
Bester is also the creator of the Green Lantern's oath, btdubs. Burroughs chimed in with The Naked Lunch, and even genre writers took notice.
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Real science started to outpace writers' prescience; the Space Race was on. By the early s, sci-fi was practically nervous for a big change, like a wave stuck at the crest, unable to crash. When Michael Moorcock yes, it's a very funny name assumed editorship of New Worlds in , the New Wave of science fiction landed.
It's an observed beginning, at least.