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Best Books About Science Fiction

Top 25 Books ABOUT Science Fiction (aka NON Fiction works)

If you're really interested in science fiction, there's an awful lot more to read than just the fiction itself. There's a whole library of books about science fiction: reference books, biographies and autobiographies, collections of reviews and essays, academic works, histories, and more, much more.

Unless you're studying science fiction, you probably don't want to read all of it. But even if you're not studying, there's an awful lot that will repay a visit. Find out more about your favorite writers, discover works you've never heard of, see things that you'd missed even in books you've read several times, learn what great writers think of each other.

In this list we've culled the library down to just the ones that we think are most important for any sf fan. They are readable, they are full of information, and they make science fiction even more exciting.

Strictly speaking, this isn't a book, not any more. It started out as a book, the first edition was published in 1979 (edited by Peter Nicholls and John Clute), a second edition, increased to more than twice the length, followed in 1993 (edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls), and now it has become a website (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/). Today it contains nearly 5 million words and just under 16,000 entries, and it is still growing.

The number of contributors is immense, they are all recognised authorities, and the entries they write are as thorough and as accurate as you could hope to get. There are other sf encyclopedias, but none of them match this.

 

Quite frankly, if you want to find out anything about science fiction, this is the first place to go, it's as simple as that. There is no other reference book on sf that comes close to matching it.

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In the mid-60s, sf editors started to receive stories from a new writer none of them had heard of before, James Tiptree, Jr. Right from the start they were good stories, within a year or two they were excellent stories, and before long they were winning awards all over the place. But the author remained a mystery. Nobody met Tiptree, nobody spoke to him on the phone, the postal address was a PO Box in Langley, Virginia, which led to the rumour that Tiptree was in the CIA.

But nobody knew. The stories said extraordinary things about sex and love and the nature of women, so someone said Tiptree was a woman, but Robert Silverberg declared the stories were obviously masculine. Another writer appeared, Raccoona Sheldon, not as good as Tiptree, but clearly Tiptree-esque.

Then someone began to investigate, and discovered that Tiptree (and Raccoona) was really Alice B. Sheldon, daughter of a 1930s writer, who worked in photo-analysis in the war and studied psychology. After this, Tiptree continued to write, but the stories were never quite as good, and in 1987, seriously ill herself, she killed her invalid husband and committed suicide.

It's an extraordinary life story, and Julie Phillips's account is quite simply one of the best and most gripping literary biographies you are ever likely to read.

We are starting to get biographies of sf writers (there'll be another one on this list); there is, for instance, an interesting biography of the Australian writer George Turner (George Turner: A Life by Judith Raphael Buckrich), a rather poor one of Eric Frank Russell (Into Your Tent by John L. Ingham), and a recent two-volume biography of Robert Heinlein that has been severely criticised (Robert A. Heinlein by William Patterson), but frankly none of them are a match for this book.

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Okay, no two authorities will ever agree on the history of science fiction; we can't even agree on a definition of sf, so how on earth are we going to agree on when it started or what it's made of. Even so, if you want a good, solid, no-nonsense history of the genre, this is the book for you.

You're not going to agree with everything in the book. For instance, he identifies the starting point of sf as the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno in 1600, which is just eccentric. But he covers the ground thoroughly. Unusually for single-volume histories of sf he also covers film and television and music and games and so on; and it's Adam Roberts, so you know he can tell a good story. And his underlying contention that sf is Protestant while fantasy is Catholic may be stretching things a bit, but it does make a lot of sense.

 

There are lots of histories of sf now available (another will appear later in this list); they range from the mad (The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin) to the fairly specialist (Science Fiction in the 20th Century by Edward James), but none is as wide ranging, as comprehensive and as readable as this one.

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One of the best things that any book about science fiction can do is make you think again about what sf actually is. This book does it to an extraordinary degree. There are four sections in the book, each consisting of 11 chapters, and only the first of these sections deals with science fiction as literature.

The next section looks at science fiction in everything from film and television to architecture and theme parks. After that, it takes us into areas where most books on sf just do not tread: body modification, advertising, religion, military culture, libertarianism and anarchism, and so on. By the end of the book, the world will be a very different place, and you'll begin to think that science fiction has little to do with science and even less to do with fiction.

 

Okay, this isn't a book to buy, the price is ludicrous, but try and find it in a library and read the thing, it's well worth the effort. There is no other book that looks in such detail at all the ways science fiction affects the world around us. If you've ever said: we're living in a science fiction universe, this book will give you the evidence you need.

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Curiously, science fiction writers aren't always the best people to write about science fiction, they're too close to have the perspective that's needed. The result is often rather pedestrian, like Arthur C. Clarke's memoir, Astounding Days, or Thomas M. Disch's idiosyncratic essays in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of. But there are some sf writers who are among the very best commentators on the genre, and of these Samuel R. Delany is head and shoulders above them all.

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw was his first collection of essays and reviews, and it's where he first developed the idea that science fiction is a language. Science fiction writers use words differently from other writers: "she turned on her side" could mean she rolled over, but in sf it could mean she threw a switch. And having established that idea he goes on to explore how this different language marks science fiction out from the rest of literature.

 

Delany has written almost as many books about science fiction as he has written novels. Some of them are quite dense, and he does use a lot of jargon, but if you love his fiction you'll really want to read these books as well. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is the place to start, but after this you'll quickly want to move on to the others, like Starboard Wine or The American Shore (a full-length book devoted to analysing just one short story, "Angouleme" by Thomas M. Disch) or Shorter Views or About Writing (which is absolutely essentially for anyone who actually wants to be a science fiction writer).

 

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In terms of literary culture, critical accounts of science fiction came rather late. Even so, there are some very early books that, if you can find a secondhand copy, are well worth reading. Voyages to the Moon by Marjorie Hope Nicolson is a delightfully engaging account of early stories of space flight, and Pilgrims Through Space and Time by J.O. Bailey, which gave its name to the annual Pilgrim Award, is one of the founding works of sf study. But one of the first books to deal seriously with contemporary sf was this one.

Amis, mainstream author of books like Lucky Jim, was invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton, and chose to talk about science fiction. This book is the collection of those lectures. He presents sf as the ideal medium for satire, and introduces the term "comic inferno" to describe novels like The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, which he particularly valued.

 

New Maps of Hell is partial and idiosyncratic and very much of its time, but it was tremendously important (as well as being often very funny and always very acute), and if you ever want to get an idea of the development of science fiction criticism, this is the place to start.

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I said there was another history of science fiction on this list, and here it is. In Billion Year Spree, Aldiss had written the first book-length history of the genre, and in this work he expands that.

It's rather out of date now; there aren't that many who still agree with Aldiss that Frankenstein was the first work of science fiction, and his rather dismissive term of "cosy catastrophe" for the science fiction of writers like John Wyndham has also fallen out of use. Nevertheless, if you are looking for an engaging survey of the history of sf you really can't go far wrong with this book.

 

Billion Year Spree was effectively the first history of science fiction, and this updated and expanded version is still one of the best.

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If you are looking for the pre-eminent sf critic, look no further; Clute is without doubt the best and most important critic working in the genre today. His vocabulary is arcane and elaborate, his opinions are pronounced, and his knowledge of the genre is second to none. If you want an exhilarating ride through the state of the genre today, there is no-one better.

He has published a string of books that collect his various reviews, such as Strokes, Look at the Evidence, Canary Fever, Scores and Stay, and in all honesty any of these would be an excellent place to start reading Clute. But the one we've picked is Pardon This Intrusion because it consists of longer and more general essays, so it's a great place to start getting to grips with the Clutean view of sf; just remember to keep a dictionary handy while you're reading.

 

John Clute is opinionated, knowledgeable, argumentative, and fiercely intelligent. Ask anyone in sf today who is the best critic working in the genre and the first name that any of them mention is likely to be John Clute. To put it simply, you need to read Clute, and this is probably the best place to start.

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As a critic of science fiction and fantasy, Ursula Le Guin is neither as prolific nor as academically inclined as Samuel R. Delany, but she is always readable and insightful. The Language of the Night is the first collection of her essays, reviews, book introductions, talks and other miscellaneous writings. It is probably most of interest for the insights it provides into her own writing, because she can be extraordinarily clear about the background to her own major works such as The Left Hand of Darkness. But other essays discuss such things as the strengths and weaknesses of science fiction, the value of fantasy and so forth. In fact, the collection ranges as wide as her own fiction.

Her later non-fiction, such as Dancing at the Edge of the World, Cheek by Jowl, Steering the Craft and The Wave in the Mind, are also worth reading not just for what she has to say about her own fiction, but also for her thoughts on the craft of writing in general and on feminism and science fiction in particular.

 

Ursula Le Guin has to be one of the most important and most thoughtful writers working in science fiction today, so it is always going to be worth seeking out what she has to say about the genre.

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Some time ago, the critic Gary Westfahl tried to argue that you could use the number of neologisms in a work as a measure of how science fictional it was. The idea was nonsense, of course, but it does suggest how important new words are in sf. And that's why this book, also called The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, is so important.

Here you will find everything from the words science fiction has invented, like "robot" or "spaceship"; to the language sf fans use, like "sercon" or "gafia"; to the jargon used in sf criticism, like "expository lump" or "widescreen baroque". Just like any Oxford Dictionary, you'll not only find the definition (or definitions) of the word, but also the citations for where it was first used, and some of the other places where it has been used since.

 

If science fiction is a language (see The Jewel-Hinged Jaw above), or even if it isn't, the genre certainly uses words in its own very distinctive way, and it invents an awful lot of words as well. So this is an invaluable reference book to help you keep clear about exactly what is being said.

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Science fiction has long been more than just a branch of literature. In fact, science fiction film is now often thought to be at least as important as science fiction books, if not more so. So there is always a need for a clear, straightforward, introductory guide to science fiction film, and that's exactly what this book is.

Bould takes us from Melies's charmingly eccentric journey to the moon in 1902 to big-budget adventures like Avatar in 2009. He looks at the way science is portrayed on film, at the spectacle and special effects, and takes in hundreds of films that range from the well known to the obscure.

 

This is far from being the most detailed or comprehensive account of science fiction film available, but as a starting point you really couldn't do better.

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If you were looking for just one book to read as an introduction to the range and variety of science fiction, this would be the one. As with all the Cambridge Companions, it brings together the very best critics and writers, including John Clute, Brian Stableford, Gwyneth Jones and Ken MacLeod, and they give a vivid and informative overview of the entire genre.

There are chapters on the history of the genre, on critical approaches like feminism and postmodernism, and on sub-genres like hard sf, space opera, alternate histories and utopias. With a range of perspectives, this is a detailed, argumentative and unfailingly fascinating book. Really, even if you think you are an expert on science fiction, you're sure to learn something new from this book.

 

There are all sorts of Companions to science fiction that have come out over recent years. We've already noticed the Oxford Handbook, and the Routledge Companion also appears on this list. They all try and give a broad introduction to the genre for the average reader, and they all do something slightly different. The Cambridge Companion is probably the most accessible.

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I.F. Clarke is probably best known now for all his work on future war stories, such as The Tale of the Next Great War and The Great War With Germany, but this earlier, more general book on future fiction is the one we recommend.

Visions of the future have long been a fundamental part of science fiction, and in this book Clarke identifies the first fiction about the future as a propaganda pamphlet produced during the English Civil War. From that unlikely beginning, he traces the tale of the future over the next three and a half centuries. It really is a textbook example of how to write a thorough analysis of one of the key strands in science fiction.

 

There are all sorts of studies of particular aspects of science fiction, on utopias (Utopia and Anti-Utopia by Krishan Kumar), on underground worlds (Subterranean Worlds by Peter Fitting), on prehistoric fiction (The Fire in the Stone by Nick Ruddick) and so on. But this has to be the best example of how to do it.

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There wasn't much in the way of serious criticism of science fiction until a trio of authors started writing reviews for the magazines. The three were James Blish (see The Issue at Hand below), Damon Knight (In Search of Wonder) and AlgisBudrys. From 1965 until 1971 he reviewed regularly for Galaxy and these reviews were subsequently gathered into this collection.

Because he understood writing from the inside, his reviews were incisive and precise. He was never afraid to criticise a well-regarded novel or to highlight the qualities of an unpopular work. Through the pages of Galaxy he provided sharp critical commentary on many of the most important books of the late 1960s, from Dune to Flowers for Algernon, from Bug Jack Barron to Ringworld.

In the 1970s he moved to reviewing for F&SF, and those reviews have also now been collected in three volumes, Benchmarks Continued, Benchmarks Revisited and Benchmarks Concluded. It has to be admitted that the later reviews grew increasingly eccentric, but at his best he was still one of the finest book reviewers in the business.

 

Much of the early criticism of science fiction was done through book reviews, but it took the great triumvirate of Blish, Knight and Budrys to really show how it should be done. And Benchmarks deserves a place of honour in anyone's library of books about sf.

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One of the unique features of science fiction has been the growth of a subculture around the genre known as science fiction fandom. Fandom first started to form around the letter columns of the early magazines, but it quickly became a lively culture in its own right, publishing its own amateur magazines and getting together at conventions.

A host of major writers, such as Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Robert Silverberg and many more have emerged from fandom; and it was the bibliographers and critics within fandom who provided the bedrock for the current critical and academic study of the genre. In other words, no serious assessment of science fiction can afford to ignore fandom.

A number of studies of fandom have appeared over the years, but the first and still the best is Harry Warner's history of fandom in the 1940s, All Our Yesterdays. Because the history of fandom in these vital years as it was just beginning to take shape is also the history of the sf magazines and of science fiction itself. A second book by Warner, A Wealth of Fable, takes the story on through the 1950s.

 

You really cannot begin to understand how science fiction developed during the golden age of the 1940s and 50s without understanding the fandom that underpinned it every step of the way. This is how the science fiction we all know, the stories of Asimov and Clarke, of Ellison and Silverberg, came about.

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Feminist thought has proved to be one of the most productive ways of approaching science fiction, resulting in a host of truly excellent books such as Decoding Gender in Science Fiction by Brian Attebery and Frankenstein's Daughters by Jane Donawerth. But this is an excellent place to start because it is such a lively and readable book.

Larbalestier traces the way women have been presented in science fiction from the 1920s right up to the 1990s, covering everything from magazine covers to fanzine articles as well as the stories themselves. Who knew sex had played such a prominent part in science fiction, even when it thought it was being sexless.

 

It's witty and acute and well researched and tells an absolutely fascinating story.

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There are more books about H.G. Wells than any other science fiction writer, and it's not hard to see why. He led an extraordinary life: he had affairs with a succession of strong women like Rebecca West (there are biographies devoted to his sex life); he joined and fell out with the Fabian Society (there are biographies devoted to his political life); he befriended and fell out with writers like Henry James and Joseph Conrad (there are biographies devoted to his literary status); and among all of this he practically invented 20th century science fiction. With so much to choose from, this is the biography we would choose because it pays most attention to Wells the writer without ignoring everything else going on in his life.

 

The author of The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon has a unique importance in the history of science fiction. And this is the biography that best conveys and explains that importance. And it does so in a wonderfully readable and engaging way.

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Every major non-fiction publisher now seems to have a Companion to science fiction. In some respects, inevitably, they plough the same furrow, there are invariably essays on the history of the genre and on various theoretical approaches. Still, taken together they form the nucleus of a very respectable science fiction reference library, and there are important differences between them. The Oxford Handbook concentrates on how sf shapes the real world, the Cambridge Companion looks primarily at sf as a literary medium, and this volume tends to consider issues raised. There are essays on such topics as animal studies, environmentalism, ethics, digital games, psychoanalysis, language and music alongside more traditional topics such as space opera, hard sf, dystopia, space and so forth.

 

You are probably not going to read these companions through from beginning to end; they are books you'll dip into from time to time to pursue a theme or follow an interest. But whenever the mood does take you to find out a little more about television since 1980 or posthumanism, this really is the perfect companion.

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We said earlier how much feminist ideas had done for the study of science fiction, and this was, in effect, the pioneering work, the book that first laid out in a popular and accessible way the role of women in science fiction. Lefanu was one of the editors at The Women's Press, the publisher responsible for bringing many women writers of science fiction to public attention. And it is her experience there that Lefanu brings to this fascinating book.

In the first part she examines the role of women within sf, how they are presented and what they write, asking if there is such a thing as women's science fiction. She follows this up in the second part with a detailed examination of four major women sf writers, James Tiptree, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas and Joanna Russ.

 

This is the book that, probably more than any other, kickstarted the feminist analysis of science fiction. It's a pioneer, a groundbreaking work, and it is still revealing and informative today.

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William Atheling, Jr., was the name that James Blish took when he began writing science fiction criticism in the early 1950s. Before this, no-one had criticised science fiction like this. Above all, Blish believed that science fiction writers should be held to the same literary standards as any other writers, and in savaging writers known and unknown Blish initiated the movement that resulted in the works by Budrys and Clute and Gary Wolfe also included on this list.

In the first of the two collections, he has gathered the reviews that deal mainly with the magazines of the day; the second collection deals mainly with the books. Here you'll find his excoriating response to the short stories of Theodore Sturgeon, to Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, to Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. The reviews are fresh, invigorating, and even today any would-be writer will benefit from re-reading them.

 

Frankly, without this pioneering work, we wouldn't have today's criticism, or this website, or possibly even science fiction as we know it.

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You read Locus, don't you? It is the way we all keep up with what is happening in science fiction. And one of the chief joys of reading Locus is the reviews that Gary Wolfe contributes each month. Funny, trenchant, always perceptive, they give the best overview of new books month in month out.

Now those Locus review columns have been gathered in these three collections (a fourth will follow in time), which include every single column between 1992 and 2006. For anyone who wants to know about the state of science fiction, there is no better choice.

 

Gary Wolfe is one of the very best reviewers working in science fiction today. Just start reading any of these books and you'll see right away what makes them absolutely essential.

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Another collection of essays and reviews, but Joanna Russ was a very different reviewer from Gary Wolfe. She was excoriating, merciless in the way she would decry any failing no matter how august the writer. She was also, through her fiction (The Female Man) and her non-fiction (How to Suppress Women's Writing) one of the most important and uncompromising voices in feminist science fiction. You have to read Joanna Russ, full stop.

She was one of the few essential writers that science fiction has produced, and there are several books we could recommend here, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts or To Write Like a Woman, for instance. But this is probably the best place to start, the best place to get a taste of her voice and her opinions. And those opinions come across loud and clear in these reviews. Brusque, never prepared to accept fools, always ready to point out where a good writer has produced nonsense, this collection is a heady brew. You'll enjoy it!

 

Because you have to read Joanna Russ, and because this is as good a place to start as you're likely to find.

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Around 1911, Hugo Gernsback wrote a pretty crappy story called Ralph 124C41+, but the idea obviously stuck with him, because a few years later, when he was editing magazines like Electrical Experimenter and Science and Invention, he started including similar stories. Eventually, in 1926, he launched Amazing Stories, a magazine entirely devoted to that sort of fiction which he called "scientifiction". And that, according to Westfahl, was the origin of science fiction as a self-conscious genre.

It's not an idea that's widely accepted by anyone other than Westfahl, but in the course of laying out the argument he produced an informative and entertaining book about the early days of magazine sf under Gernsback and John W. Campbell. They were wild days, with writers churning out undemanding fiction to order for a pittance, but this was where space opera and hard sf both came into their own, and a host of authors who are now household names in sf had their start.

 

To be honest, I wouldn't take Westfahl's central argument too seriously, but around that he has created one of the very best accounts of the early days of 20th century sf.

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Throughout this list, we've tended to steer clear of too many academic books on sf. There are an awful lot out there now, and some of them are very good indeed, but they also tend to be rather dense and full of jargon, and unless you're really into that style of writing you'll probably get more out of the more approachable books we've listed.

Let's face it, if you're feeling brave you'll find a great deal that's interesting and informative in something like Archaeologies of the Future by Fredric Jameson, but you enter at your own risk, it is not easy reading. Nevertheless, there are a few academic titles that have earned a place in any sf fan's library, and Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction is definitely one of them.

We pointed out earlier how important feminism had become in any understanding of science fiction. Well the other recent theory that has been just as productive has been postcolonialism. It's hardly surprising when you think of how many sf works are basically about things like race, dominance, invasion, conquest and other key issues in postcolonial thought. And Rieder lays it all out in this survey of sf from Victorian scientific romance to the Second World War, from King Solomon's Mines and The War of the Worlds to The Puppet Masters and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

 

If you want to understand current critical thinking about science fiction, then there had to be at least one book on the list about post colonialism, and this is easily the most readable and the most informative.

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