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Best Early Science Fiction Books

Influential, Early Science Fiction That Helped Shaped The Genre

On successive days in May 1895 a young writer, previously known only for a couple of textbooks, had two books published. The first, a collection of humorous newspaper articles, sank without trace; but the second, also drawn from earlier newspaper articles, was an instant bestseller that has been continuously in print up to the present day and that changed what we now know as science fiction. That book was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. 

With that, and with four more novels published over the next six years - The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon - Wells set the tone and established the subject matter that science fiction would pursue over the next half century or more.

Therefore, in laying out the best early science fiction, we start inevitably with Wells, and we take the story up until a young writer called John W. Campbell took over the editorship of America's most successful science fiction magazine, Astounding, and ushered in the Classic or Golden Age of sf. But if you think that science fiction only really took off with Asimov and Heinlein and others in Campbell's stable, think again! The early years of the twentieth century saw some of the strangest, most wonderful, and most lasting science fiction ever written.

We have to start with Wells, but which novel should it be? The ways of making man monstrous in The Island of Doctor Moreau or The Invisible Man? The invention of travel into our future in The Time Machine? The encounter with aliens on our own moon in The First Men in the Moon? It's a difficult choice, but in the end it has to be The War of the Worlds.

The astronomer, Percival Lowell, had identified the lines on Mars as canals, which implied intelligent life, and everyone assumed it must be an older, more advanced civilisation. But what happens when an advanced society meets a more primitive one? Wells knew the answer, because he knew what European colonisers were doing in Africa and elsewhere, so he told the story of Martians arriving near the heart of Victorian civilisation. And he made them truly alien: the massive heads, the tentacles, the V-shaped mouths, the black smoke, the tripods, this was our world up against something it could not understand or match.

The story of our narrator watching the invaders arrive, cowering in ruins to escape them, witnessing the panic as London is evacuated, seeing the hopeless last-ditch defences: this is powerful, vivid stuff. Even today it's a thrilling read.

Why it tops the list:

This is not just the first alien invasion story in science fiction, it is still one of the best and most influential: think of the films by George Pal and Stephen Spielberg, think of the radio dramatization by Orson Welles that created panic in America. Wells is, without doubt, one of the all-time greats, one of the best and most important writers in the entire history of science fiction, and The War of the Worlds is Wells at the very top of his form.

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Science fiction in the early years of the twentieth century was a more truly international literature than at any other time before the present day, and We is a great reason to celebrate that internationalism. The first work to be banned by the Soviet censors, the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia and published in the West, where it was a reviewed by George Orwell who would later write his own version of this story as 1984.

We is a chilling vision of the ultimate in state control. People have numbers, not names. Everyone lives in glass houses where they can be observed at every moment of the day and night. And the State decides who you can have sex with, and who shall be allowed to bear children.

D-503 is an engineer working on the rocket that is intended to carry the rule of the state into outer space, but he meets a woman who introduces him to the rebels who are planning to break down state power. In the end, D-503 is caught and subject to a surgical procedure that makes him love the Great Benefactor, but there are still signs that the rebellion may happen.

Why it's on the list:

If anything, We is even more powerful, engaging and readable than the book it inspired, 1984. It is a vivid, exciting work full of fascinating invention and gripping drama. The whole history of dystopian literature, up to and including things like The Hunger Games, has its origin in this book.

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Soviet Russia wasn't the only terrible dictatorship whose malevolent influence overshadowed the early years of the century, there was also Nazi Germany, and Swastika Night was one of the first and still one of the best novels to warn about what might happen if Hitler had his way.

First published in 1937 under the pseudonym of Murray Constantine, Swastika Night appeared at a time when many politicians were still talking of appeasing Hitler, and the horrors of the regime were barely beginning to be known. But Burdekin imagined what might happen if the Thousand Year Reich ran its course, and the result was this astonishing novel.

Set hundreds of years after the end of the war, we enter a world in which Jews have been eliminated, Christians are marginalised, and women have been deprived of all their rights. It is a brutal, misogynistic society in which history has been rewritten so that Hitler is remembered as a tall, blond god who single-handedly won the war. The suppression of women is also having a long term effect on the viability of the society. Then a visitor to the Reich stumbles upon a secret from the past.

Why it's on the list:

Katherine Burdekin didn't just initiate a whole strand of alternate history, her scathing attack on power and the suppression of women made this one of the classic novels of inter-war science fiction.

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A venture capitalist with a brain-damaged mother. A technology that can transform the world. A ruthless enemy with a dark agenda.

Packed to the brim with non-stop action and thought-provoking science, Mind Machines is an intensely complex sci-fi thriller you don’t want to miss. The unpredictable plot hooks you immediately, and the snarky narration lightens even the darkest scenes. The inventive Brainocyte technology will appeal to die-hard fans of the genre as well as casual readers. 

The characters are well-developed and the relationships are realistic. As entertaining as it is clever, Mind Machines is a story you won’t soon forget. Get the Kindle ebook copy here, paperback here or audiobook here.

The great innovation in American science fiction during the 1920s was the invention of the space opera, and that was largely down to E.E. "Doc" Smith. Sometime around 1916 he had the idea for a story about travelling through interstellar space, but he didn't write it until the mid-1920s, with a family friend, Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby, writing the romantic elements that Smith wasn't comfortable with.

The first novel, The Skylark of Space, appeared in three parts in Amazing in 1928, and was so successful that the editor asked Smith for a sequel even before the first part had appeared. Two sequels appeared in the early 1930s, Skylark Three and Skylark of Valeron, and a fourth volume, Skylark DuQuesne was added in 1963, two years before Smith died.

The story involves the discovery of an interstellar drive, with two families heading off to the stars, competing against the villainous DuQuesne, and encountering a dizzying array of strange planets and alien races. It is basically non-stop adventure, with some new technological development or alien encounter cropping up whenever the pace threatens to slow.

Why it's on the list:

Space opera was the first major subgenre of American science fiction, and it all began here. It's a thrilling read that stretches our credibility in every direction at once, but it really opened up the depths of space for all the science fiction that came after.

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Not many works of science fiction have introduced a new word into the language, but R.U.R. did, and remarkably quickly. It was first produced in Prague in 1921, it was staged in New York in 1922 and in London in 1923, and by June of 1923 the Times of London was casually referring to Robots as if it expected all of its readers to understand the reference. Of course, Capek's robots are not the metal monsters of later science fiction, they are more like what we would call androids, biological creations that are indistinguishable from humans except that they are supposed to have no feelings. That's why they are ideal working in factories or as servants, and by the time of the play the entire economy of the world is dependent upon them. But the robots are not without feelings, they revolt and kill off humanity, and by the end of the play a new robot Adam and Eve are emerging. It is a clever, witty and engaging play full of action and thought provoking ideas. Why it's on the list: There were artificial people before Capek's play (think of Frankenstein's creature, for example), but the idea of a robot worker, an artificial being that might take over from man, was new to the play. Essentially, without R.U.R. we wouldn't have Asimov's robot stories, or any of the other robot stories that followed after.

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We all like sense of wonder, that feeling of being overawed by the scale of things we find in science fiction: Iain Banks's massive spaceships, Alistair Reynolds's journeys around the entire galaxy, Isaac Asimov's rise and fall of galactic civilisations. But no work of science fiction has envisaged the timescale covered by Olaf Stapledon's monumental novel. It encompasses billions of years, and witnesses the rise and fall not just of humanity, but of our successors, and their successors, and onwards to an almost unimaginable point in the very distant future.

The First Men are basically us, and we follow their story as world governments rise and fall until, hundreds of thousands of years hence, humanity wipes itself out. But a few survivors go on to become the Second Men, who are on the point of creating superior beings when they too fall, and are replaced by the Third Men.

Our descendants reach out to other planets, change their physical appearance, build artificial species, descend into barbarism, and so on, until we reach the Eighteenth Men, an artificial race with different genders and an ability to become a hive mind. The invention never flags, and the scale and reach of the novel is constantly breathtaking.

Why it's on the list:

It inspired Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis, James Blish and Brian Aldiss; H.P. Lovecraft considered it the greatest of all works of science fiction. There is no vision of the future to match it, and all our subsequent visions of the future owe something to it.

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When Modern Library listed the 100 best English language novels of the twentieth century, Brave New World came fifth. It is one of those books that defined the age, and quite frankly if you haven't read it, you're missing out.

The time is 632 years After Ford, and industrialisation has reached into every aspect of human life. Babies are born in artificial wombs, and assigned a caste that dictates everything they shall do in life. Individuality is a thing of the past, instead everything is directed towards maintaining the economic power of the state.

But everyone is chemically and psychologically conditioned to be happy: this is an ordered, highly structured state, but a happy one. Only the Savages who live on reservations outside the State know what it is to be unhappy, but they also know what it is to be an individual. The novel concerns one of those Savages, brought back into the State, and the resultant clash between individuality and conformity.

Why it's on the list:

Brave New World is one of the best and most important dystopias in the history of science fiction, and one that is uncomfortably prescient in many ways. Writing Brave New World Revisited thirty years later, Huxley thought that the World State he envisaged was actually arriving more quickly than he had thought possible.

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Weinbaum's first sf story went on to become one of the most successful science fiction stories of the period, and one of the few that is still readable today. It immediately established Weinbaum as one of the major talents in science fiction (though, alas, he died barely eighteen months later, having written barely a handful of other works, none as good). When the SFWA voted on the best short stories before the Nebulas, "A Martian Odyssey" came second.

A member of the first human expedition to Mars becomes separated from his fellows following a crash, and decides to walk back to base. Along the way he rescues a Martian, Tweel, from attack, and Tweel joins him on his journey. They encounter creatures made of silicon, tentacled predators that can read the mind, and strange creatures pushing barrows who repeat everything said to them but otherwise do not interact with the strangers.

Why it's on the list:

Let's face it, "A Martian Odyssey" is classic Golden Age science fiction, just ten years or more ahead of the game. It's the first story to offer creatures incomprehensible in their alienness, creatures who have their own agenda that has nothing to do with the human visitors. It really was a breath of fresh air in the science fiction of the day.

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Towards the end of the 19th century a big movement for women's suffrage started up on both sides of the Atlantic. Accompanying the political campaign, there were many stories that showed the social roles of men and women reversed, or women achieving high office by the simple expedient of dressing as men. But far and away the best and most innovative of these early feminist science fiction works was Herland.

The story tells of three male adventurers who explore an uncharted territory and discover a land composed entirely of women, who reproduce by parthenogenesis and so have no need or understanding of men. The three men each bring different but typically Victorian ideas of womanhood to Herland, and the story is basically about their learning curve as they have to come to terms with strong, capable women who really have no need of men.

Why it's on the list:

There are stories by Sheri Tepper, Sally Miller Gearhart, Lucy Sussex and many more that all trace their origins directly back to Herland. It is one of the most influential of all feminist science fictions, and it's a remarkably engaging story

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By the time Burroughs came to write the first of his Barsoom novels, the idea of Mars presented by Percival Lowell had been pretty much dismissed, but that didn't matter. Because for Burroughs the idea of a dying desert world was just the setting he needed for a fast-paced adventure story full of sword fights and derring-do and lots of ridiculous escapades.

John Carter, a Civil War veteran, is escaping from Apaches in Arizona when he is suddenly transported to Mars. Here the lower gravity means he has super powers, which gives him a real advantage when he becomes involved in the war between the green, six-limbed Tharks and the red humanoid Martians. Of course, there's a beautiful Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, for him to rescue and fall in love with. And there are all sorts of big set piece action scenes to keep the whole story rushing along.

Why it's on the list:

A Princess of Mars was just the first in a series of 11 Barsoom books that Burroughs would write over a period of some 30 years. Let's face it, you don't read them for literary quality or scientific verisimilitude, but they are incredibly readable, and created the colourful planetary romance that was one of the most popular forms of science fiction over the next half century or more.

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Science fiction has produced some pretty weird novels in its time, but there aren't many that can match A Voyage to Arcturus. It has had a major influence on writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, while others have dismissed it as virtually unreadable. But if you're in the mood for a wild intellectual ride, this is the book for you.

At a sance in Scotland, Maskull meets characters called Krag and Nightspore, who invite him to come to the planet Tormance orbiting the twin suns of Arcturus. But when he arrives, Maskull finds himself alone. There follows a journey through lush and extraordinary landscapes, during which Maskull finds himself growing and losing new organs: a tentacle, a third arm, a third eye. All of the encounters he has along the way allow Lindsay to explore and then dismiss different philosophical ideas, eventually arriving at a position something like Gnosticism.

Why it's on the list:

This is a Marmite book: you'll either love it or hate it, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. But whichever it is, this is a true one-off, there's been nothing quite like it before or since.

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This is the novelisation of the film that Thea von Harbou wrote with her husband, Fritz Lang. It was the first feature-length science fiction film, the most expensive film made to that date, and the film alone marks this out as one of the defining science fiction texts of the years between the wars.

It's a world in which the rich play high in the air in beautiful towering edifices, while the workers live a dull and constricted life largely underground, the sort of situation that recalls the Eloi and Morlocks of Wells's The Time Machine. But in this story the heir of one of the great industrialists falls in love with a teacher who works among the underclass. The teacher is leading the workers to revolution through religion, but the industrialist tries to put a stop to it by having a robot created in her image, a wild and lascivious creature that will undo all the good works of the teacher. Then the machine that keeps the city running stops, and mayhem is let loose.

Why it's on the list:

Without Metropolis you really can't understand the direction that science fiction was taking immediately before the Second World War. It is a powerful, vivid, wonderful piece of work, and the sexy robots of Lester Del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" or C.L. Moore's "No Woman Born" spring directly from Maria in this film.

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Sherlock Holmes should have been a science fiction hero: the character who works by logic, who uses science, he was made for the genre. But when Conan Doyle did create a version of Holmes in his science fiction stories, Professor Challenger proved to be a rather different type of character, someone for whom ratiocination is never quite enough to solve the overwhelming mystery of the world, so he becomes a man of action.

In this, his first outing, for instance, he leads an expedition to a remote plateau in South America so cut off from the world that dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures have survived here. The expedition is cut off on the plateau, attacked by pterodactyls, captured by ape men, and caught up in a war between the ape men and a tribe of primitive humans.

Why it's on the list:

Can you imagine King Kong or Jurassic Park or any of a host of similar stories without The Lost World? Writers around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth were fascinated by the idea of the primitive, but it was Doyle who showed how you could bring the prehistoric right into the modern world.

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Around the end of the 19th century, a handful of powerful financiers and businessmen in America gained an incredible amount of economic and political power. Men like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were so ruthless in the way they amassed fortunes and exercised power that they were known as "robber barons". In particular, they freely used the forces of the state, the police and army, to crush any attempt to strike.

In one of the most politically astute novels of the age, Jack London imagined what it would be like if the power of the robber barons went even further. In his near-future San Francisco, the Oligarchy holds absolute power in America. The story is told through the diary of a girl who is raised as part of the elite, but who marries a man devoted to the idea of revolution. The revolt fails and they spend years in the underground, preparing for a second rebellion that they are convinced will succeed.

Why it's on the list:

The idea of science fiction taking a long hard look at what is going on in the present day, and then turning it into a powerful dystopian fiction, is brilliantly expressed by this superb novel.

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A lean, rugged man, pistol slung low on his hip, strides through a dusty frontier town. But this town is on Mars, and the man is Northwest Smith who is about to rescue a woman from being attacked by the locals. The trouble is, when he has spirited her away, the woman turns out to be a medusa, and Northwest Smith has to think and act fast in order to stay alive.

"Shambleau" was C.L. Moore's first published story, and introduced the character of Northwest Smith who would bring his laconic style to a host of stories in which planetary adventure and supernatural tale combine.

Why it's on the list:

Moore was one of the most original writers of her day, able to turn her hand fluently to hard sf, weird fiction, heroic fantasy or comedy. But she was at her best, as here, when she merged genres to create something fresh and exciting.

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The idea of a drowned England had been a commonplace in British scientific romances since at least After London by Richard Jeffries, but it received its finest expression in Fowler Wright's Deluge. In this novel earth tremors inundate the entire country, leaving only a few parts of the Midlands as isolated islands. Here a lawyer, Martin, and his wife both survive, but are separated. Martin takes up with an athletic young woman, Claire, and when his wife reappears on the scene the two women decide to share the man. It is this sexual liberty, I suspect, that is one of the secrets of the success of this novel.

Fowler Wright is gleeful about sweeping away the dull trappings of conventional society (there is only one footnote in the book, a complaint about the iniquity of speeding fines); though his novel is filled with class consciousness. Martin's natural superiority makes him the inevitable leader of a group of middle class survivors; while all the working class characters we meet are villains intent on serial rape. But for all its peculiarities, this is probably the most significant work of scientific romance published between the wars.

Why it's on the list:Deluge was a massive success when first published, rescuing Fowler Wright from bankruptcy, and though he was never able to duplicate the success, it was an incredibly influential work. Later novels from J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World to Richard Cowper's The Road to Corlay and Christopher Priest's A Dream of Wessex all owe a direct debt to Deluge.

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Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the science fiction and weird fiction that appeared in American genre magazines was often hard to tell apart. Weird fiction writers often used science fiction tropes, and vice versa. A clear example of this is Lovecraft's novelette, The Color Out of Space, which first appeared in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, though it used the familiar setting of Lovecraft's horror fiction for a tale of alien invasion.

A meteorite crashes to earth outside Arkham, and witnesses notice strange globules of colour emitted by it. Gradually, the effects of the meteorite despoil the land, ruining crops, killing cattle and sending the family of the local farmer insane. Eventually the colours are seen trying to return to space, but some remain on the land.

Why it's on the list: There's a long history of science fiction merging with horror, and this is a prime example, by one of the definitive writers of the inter-war years.

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Not many science fiction writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Kipling was the first member of this exclusive club.His finest science fiction is a pair of stories concerning the Aerial Board of Control, "With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D." and "As Easy as A.B.C.: A Story of 2150 A.D." Kipling shared with Wells the idea that control of the air would lead to peaceful world government, and the first of these stories simply recounts a transatlantic journey by dirigible.

Though the story is made particularly memorable by the inclusion of several pages of newspaper advertisements from this future age which, taken together, provide a wonderful snapshot of daily life in this future world.

By the second story, set 150 years later, the world government has become more oppressive, and "As Easy as A.B.C." tells how agents of the Aerial Board of Control have to rush to Chicago to put down a revolt by people demanding a return to democracy.

Why it's on the list:

Taken together, these are fascinating stories which present a vividly realised portrait of the future, right down to the minutiae of what people eat and read and wear. They also present the first glimpse of a world government of flyers, which Wells himself wouldn't fully develop until The Shape of Things to Come some thirty years later.

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Not many science fiction writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but Kipling was the first member of this exclusive club.His finest science fiction is a pair of stories concerning the Aerial Board of Control, "With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D." and "As Easy as A.B.C.: A Story of 2150 A.D." Kipling shared with Wells the idea that control of the air would lead to peaceful world government, and the first of these stories simply recounts a transatlantic journey by dirigible.

Though the story is made particularly memorable by the inclusion of several pages of newspaper advertisements from this future age which, taken together, provide a wonderful snapshot of daily life in this future world.

By the second story, set 150 years later, the world government has become more oppressive, and "As Easy as A.B.C." tells how agents of the Aerial Board of Control have to rush to Chicago to put down a revolt by people demanding a return to democracy.

Why it's on the list:

Taken together, these are fascinating stories which present a vividly realised portrait of the future, right down to the minutiae of what people eat and read and wear. They also present the first glimpse of a world government of flyers, which Wells himself wouldn't fully develop until The Shape of Things to Come some thirty years later.

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This was the first novel to fully explore the consequences of the birth of homo superior. Victor Stott is born weak and awkward, with an enlarged head, and at first, because he doesn't speak or cry, he is assumed to be an idiot. But slowly we come to realise that he has an incredibly powerful intellect. He can absorb vast amounts of information and use it to synthesise new ideas at great speed. Soon he is leaving the greatest minds of the day in his wake.

But there are social problems resulting from his genius. He is disabled, not the strapping sportsman his father wanted. A child born a hydrocephalic idiot sees Victor as his fellow and latches on to him, though he alone is immune to Victor's mind control. Moreover, Victor's genius leads him to reject religion, which puts him at odds with the local clergyman who had started out helping to educate Victor. The end result is an inevitable tragedy.

Why it's on the list: Victor himself is a cold character, not prone to making emotional connections to people, but Beresford's story is warm and thoughtful and very carefully structured. It is all the more convincing for being unsensational, and it clearly paves the way for such later novels as Odd John by Olaf Stapledon and Slan by A.E. Van Vogt.

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And here we have another Nobel Prize winning author of science fiction, though in this case Lewis flirted with genre in only one novel. But that novel is a classic.

In the tradition of Jack London's The Iron Heel, this is the story of a populist politician who gets himself elected to the White House by proclaiming patriotism and traditional American values. Once in power, however, he quickly outlaws dissent, establishes concentration camps, and sets up an armed paramilitary force to impose his totalitarian regime. When his economic reforms fail to work, he becomes increasingly unpopular and is soon ousted, only to be replaced by weaker but no less dictatorial governments until a civil war finally breaks out.

The story is seen through the eyes of a liberal journalist who opposes the regime. He produces an anti-government newspaper until he is betrayed and sent to a concentration camp, but he escapes to Canada, returns as a spy, and ends up helping to organise the resistance to the regime.

Why it's on the list:

Lewis's novel was based on the career of the populist Louisiana Governor, Huey Long, who was assassinated just before the book came out. But it is still surprisingly, and disturbingly, relevant today. A gripping account of what can happen when right wing populists are able to seize the reins of power.

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M.P. Shiel was a prolific author of excitable stories for the popular magazines of the day: he was, among other things, the person who gave us The Yellow Peril. But his best story was rather more considered and more interesting than most of his other work.

The Purple Cloud was part of a long tradition of British scientific romances about the last man on earth, a tradition that stretches back at least to Mary Shelley's The Last Man. In Shiel's story, Adam Jeffson is on an expedition to the north pole when he witnesses a curious purple cloud. When he gets back to his ship, he finds all his companions have died. As he travels on, he discovers that he is alone in the world. For a while he goes mad, building an extravagant palace for himself, and burning down several cities at random. Then he discovers a girl who has also survived, and the novel ends with the two of them together and a suggestion that the purple cloud has returned.

Why it's on the list: H.G. Wells said that The Purple Cloud was brilliant, and H.P. Lovecraft also praised it. It was a work that seemed to strike a chord with authors and readers of the day. To a modern day reader it may seem over the top, but it has been regularly reprinted throughout the century since it was first published, and still stands up as an excellent example of the last man story.

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It's not altogether clear how it happened, but this novel about saving America from Mongolian conquerors somehow became one of the great space adventures. But let's start with the novel.

Sometime after the First World War, European and Asian powers banded together against the United States, and by the beginning of the 21st century the Mongolians had taken over the country and forced Americans to live in primitive communities in the forests and mountains. But one veteran of the Great War, Anthony Rogers, fell into a state of suspended animation, and woke in 2419. Falling in with one tribe of Americans in the forests of what had been Pennsylvania, he proves to be a master tactician, helping them to defeat a rival gang, then going on to lead the war that will free America from the Mongolian invaders.

Why it's on the list: A newspaper editor enjoyed the story so much that he suggested that Nowlan should turn it into a comic strip for his paper. They changed the name of the hero to Buck Rogers, and after the first few strips they abandoned the plot of the novel completely and it became a tale of adventure in outer space. It was the first science fiction comic strip which lasted for years and in turn inspired television series and films. Which makes Armageddon 2419 A.D. the unlikely progenitor of one of the great space adventures of science fiction.

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This short story is the only science fiction that the renowned novelist E.M. Forster ever wrote, but it continues to be read and applauded today. The story was written in response to A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells, because Forster distrusted Wells's notion of a benevolent world state. In Forster's world everyone lives underground, in their own individual hexagonal room just like the cells of a bee hive. People don't need to meet or interact, the machine provides for all of their requirements, and they can talk to anyone via a form of instant messaging. Most people love living in this cocoon, but one young rebel wants to find out what it is like on the surface, only to discover that the air is now poisonous and he has to retreat back underground.

As a result of this escapade, the machine starts to restrict freedoms even more. But the machine begins to prove unreliable, at first little things break down, but then the machine stops. Everyone who has grown totally dependent on the machine for air and food and light dies, only those who make it to the surface have any chance.

Why it's on the list: When the SFWA polled its members for the best science fiction novellas before 1964, when the Nebulas began, The Machine Stops was one of only two stories from before 1938 that made the list. It is one of those stories that, once read, is never forgotten.

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With the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Europe faced the prospect of a united Germany and a major shift in the delicate balance of power. As a result stories started to appear, first in Britain, then France, America, Russia and even Germany, warning of the prospects of a future war. Over time, these became ever more elaborate, and one of the most startling of all was the debut novel by George Griffith.

The novel tells of a young man who invents a flying machine. His invention is taken up by an anarchist organization, the Brotherhood of Freedom, who want to use the power of the airship to end oppression and misery. But at the same time the European powers are mobilising for war, and while the Brotherhood tries to avoid taking sides, they nevertheless find themselves drawn into the conflict. However, thanks to the massive superiority of their air power, and with a huge network of followers in every country ready to rise up at the appropriate moment, the Brotherhood is able to take nation after nation out of the fight. Finally, the Brotherhood is in a position to persuade all the nations that the only way to avoid destruction is to make all future wars impossible.

Why it's on the list: Although he has been overshadowed by his close contemporary, H.G. Wells, George Griffith was one of the masters of the scientific romance. Michael Moorcock has identified Griffith as a major influence on his own work, and he has been claimed as an early ancestor of steampunk.

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