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Favorite sci-fi novels by decade
Utopian cynicism and vice versa
Terms and conditions: One book per author, no series. Proper sci-fi: no wizards and elves and such; litfic is kosher if the SF ideas are inextricable. True novels only: no collections, no novellas according to whatever “novella” meant at the time of publication (I’ve recently hyperbolized This Is How You Lose the Time War anyway.) I’ve read at least one book by most of the big name American and British authors—most of the conspicuously missing ones cough Asimov cough Heinlein were much better at One Big Idea short fiction than novels—with exceptions listed at the bottom, but I don’t claim any thoroughness of coverage for works not originally in English.
I’ll note that you should read Wells and start from 1930.
1930s and 1940s
Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four
George R. Stewart: Earth Abides
The norm in the Golden Age and well beyond is for the square-jawed (white, male) hero to save the day through science, rationality, and a strong right cross. The works here resist this in diverse ways, without succumbing to hopelessness (well, Orwell we can argue about.) Stewart shows that postwar East Bay liberalism had its merits, but qualified ones: certainly not moral enough to build a civilization around. Stapleton wrote what’s still the most hopeful book about the world ending over and over again. Perhaps billions of years of suffering won’t be in vain if they give us a few good works of art and an extra pair of eyes in the back of our heads.
Kurt Vonnegut: The Sirens of Titan
Theodore Sturgeon: More Than Human
Alfred Bester: The Demolished Man
A lurch toward literary fiction, but with the cynicism turned up to an all-time high as a reaction to the times. Vonnegut holds up a bit better than Bester because he’s funnier. Sturgeon can be read as the culmination of an earlier tradition or the start of a new one, asking what else it might be like to be human and answering that it still kind of sucks.
Stanisław Lem: Solaris (tr. Bill Johnston)
Philip K. Dick: Dr. Bloodmoney
Samuel R. Delany: Nova
Probably the best decade for SF, with a vast expansion of its subject matter range. Lem’s pessimism about humans’ ability to understand literally anything might make him the most reactionary on this list, yet Solaris remains remarkable for its alienness (a quality the movies have not managed to reproduce.) I find about eight books by Lem’s frenemy Dick about equally good; Dr. Bloodmoney is my slight fave for showing that Marin County is the last place on Earth you’d want to be in even if it was the last place on Earth you could be in. Delany’s Nova usurps Dune’s spot by having many more concepts and slightly more good ones.
Joanna Russ: The Female Man
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed
Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Finally, feminism—yes, the likes of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett did fine work long before this, but the most progressive works of this era had more bite to them: ambiguous utopias, to steal Le Guin’s subtitle. The Female Man isn’t as flawless as Russ’s mini-genocide We Who About to Die…—reading with today’s more nuanced conception of gender identity, the Jael chapter is kind of shit—but that doesn’t invalidate the cutting-edge-in-’75 ideas, or its more formal pleasures, like the way Jeannine and Joanna and Jotaro feel like the same person. The Dispossessed makes a better case for anarcho-syndicalism than I’ve ever heard from Chomsky, as well as having one of the most convincing portrayals of a theoretical scientist in fiction. The most the men could offer is Priest’s geometry. It is good geometry.
Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games
Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker
The swing towards Britain is more a function of what I have and haven’t read than a general failure of American fiction writers across genres to meet the challenges of Reaganism head-on, no siree. Ways of reacting to Thatcher included conceiving of a utopian post-scarcity society that might’ve had its amoral blind spots, or describing a post-apocalyptic Kent that shows how culture and language eat themselves over time, with no constant except ribald puppet shows. Publishing the funniest book ever might’ve been the most spiritually useful approach, though.
Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships
Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep
Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon
This is where progressivism and cynicism became disconnected from each other, with authors retreating deeper and deeper into nerd shit. (Kim Stanley Robinson is a major exception, but I’m saving him for the 2010s.) Still, nerd shit is one of the things this substack dot com column values, and the sheer scope of stories told across hundreds of thousands of years and light-years thrills even before one starts teasing out the possibilities of world-shaping tech like Dyson spheres and Usenet. As for Cryptonomicon, well, pleasure is nothing to feel guilty about.
Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem (tr. Ken Liu)
Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day
Robert Charles Wilson: Spin
The field at this point is totally fragmented. You get the return of galactic-scale cynicism from beyond the end of history (i.e. China.) You get Pynchon becoming the biggest litfic name to give in and write a book that’s maybe 50 percent sci-fi (which is over 500 pages) to lament the passing of old school storytelling from fancypants fiction. You get Spin, a very classic kind of SF novel except with up-to-date science. All of these approaches have proved oddly difficult to imitate well (well, odd in two cases.)
Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312
Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice
Carola Dibbell: The Only Ones
Weird era. For the first time perhaps ever, ambitious types gave more attention to fantasy than to sci-fi, while SF inherited a lot of the “see, this is how the world ought to be” problems that fantasy used to have. A resurgence of cynicism would certainly be one valid response. I’ve previously written about the highlights of my 2010s in science and non-science fiction, but one omission from that list was The Only Ones, which I liked at the time but felt sure I was overrating. Having re-read a chunk of it recently, seems more likely I was underrating it: the big ideas about bodies and families rarely addressed in pure SF fit in much more elegantly than in most lit-leaning attempts at genre. Perhaps a viable future doesn’t require cynicism after all.
Non-exhaustive selection of novelists worth reading not mentioned above:
Kuttner & Moore
Walter M. Miller Jr.
John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar didn’t miss by much, I should read The Sheep Look Up)
Karen Joy Fowler
Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (I should read his new one)
Martha Wells (gotta wait for my 2020s list)
I mean you probably should read Stranger in a Strange Land and Foundation, they’re not, like, bad
Authors and books I want to read (but like in ten years’ time or something):
Fahrenheit 451 (somehow I missed the memo that everyone’s supposed to read this in high school)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (same but in one’s twenties)
Gene Wolfe (still kind of intimidating)
Octavia Butler (no excuse)
Stapledon: Star Maker
C.S. Lewis’s non-Jesusy genre fic
a bunch more Soviet stuff
maybe some Japanese stuff (have only read one Abe)
a bunch more K.S. Robinsons
Bernard Wolfe: Limbo
Mark S. Geston: Lords of the Starship
James Tiptree Jr.: Brightness Falls from the Air