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Top 25 Best Science Fiction Books About the Moon

The Greatest Science Fiction Books on or About the Moon

The Moon hangs clear above us. It is the only celestial body (other than the sun) that we can see as more than a dot. For that reason, it has always bulked large in the human imagination, a place of gods and mysteries.

Then, at the beginning of the 17th century, when telescopes were invented they were inevitably trained upon the Moon. The first map of the Moon was drawn by Thomas Harriot in 1609, and a more detailed map was included in Siderius Nuncius by Galileo the following year. This was the first representation of the Moon as a landscape. In 1620, Ben Jonson presented a masque at the court of King James called "Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone", in which the Moon was presented as having forests and cities and inhabitants who went about hiding in clouds. The Moon had become a place where stories could happen.

Right away, in fictions like Somnium by Johannes Kepler and The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin, the Moon became the setting for any story, usually satires, that were set anywhere other than the Earth. And it continued to be the only such setting right up to the end of the 19th century, when Schiaparelli's discovery of "canali" on Mars opened up a new and more threatening landscape. From then on, Mars tended to become the setting for more colorful adventures, while the Moon was more often the focus of technical stories about how we might reach it, or what it would be like to create our first off-world settlement.

The actual Moon landing by Apollo 11 in 1969 confirmed this more technological approach, but also had the effect of killing off lunar science fiction. Since men had actually walked on the Sea of Tranquility, there was a sense that the Moon was no longer the stuff of science fiction but rather of science fact. Surprisingly little science fiction about the Moon was published during the last quarter of the 20th century, certainly when compared to what had appeared during the previous half century.

As the century ended, however, such sporadic appearances started to increase, although the Moon was often rather taken for granted as little more than a way station between earth and the outer planets, as for instance in Paul McAuley's The Quiet War or James S.A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes. But with the publication of the first part of his new diptych, Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald has produced the first major new work set on the Moon for some years, and there are rumors that others may be on the way, so the Moon may yet see a renaissance.

One final oddity, in researching this list we found no major work of lunar science fiction by a woman. This is strange; look at any other theme or sub-genre within science fiction and it is almost impossible not to find a wealth of important contributions by women writers, but not the Moon. Now I am sure we have missed something obvious, and before long we'll have people queuing up to tell us so. But for the moment it looks as though the Moon, Selene, which is always presented as female in mythology, has somehow failed to attract a female writer. We wonder why that might be so.

Comments (3)
Awards Won:1967 HUGO
Award Nominations:1966 NEBULA, 1966 HUGO

Heinlein kept returning to the Moon several times throughout his career, in stories like "The Man Who Sold the Moon", "The Black Pits of Luna" and "The Menace from Earth". The Luna colony was an essential stage in his future history, the first sustained movement away from earth and the first step in learning a new independence. This all comes together in what is perhaps his best novel, a book that also encapsulates the science fiction view of the Moon before the actual Moon landing.

In this novel the Moon is a successful colony, but its economic and political independence is restricted by the Earth government. Eventually, the colonists revolt in a story that repeats the story of American independence but with the additional dangers of an unforgiving landscape, but with the great advantage of being able to bombard Earth simply by launching rocks at it.

Why it tops the list:

This Hugo winning novel is quite simply the most vivid and memorable account of life on the Lunar colony that science fiction has produced.

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First Men in the Moon was the last of the great run of genre-defining scientific romances that Wells wrote in the first years of his career, it is also the only novel he wrote that is not set upon the Earth.

Using a fanciful anti-gravity device known as Cavorite, two late-Victorian adventurers find themselves hurtling through space to the Moon. There, in caves below the surface, they discover a race of advanced insectoid aliens known as the Selenites. Selenite society is peaceful but strictly controlled, with individuals bred to fill very specific social and economic roles. It's a frightening vision of a society that comes close to being a hive mind (and which clearly influenced hive mind societies in later science fictions, such as Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive).

Why it's on the list:

First Men in the Moon was one of the most significant works in the history of science fiction; in one sense it was the last of the utopian/dystopian visions of the Moon, in another it was the beginning of the more serious explorations of the Moon that would mark 20th century science fiction. The novel's influence continues up to the present day.

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Ian McDonald's diptych, Luna: New Moon and its forthcoming sequel, Luna: Wolf Moon, is the first full-blooded description of a lunar colony that science fiction has seen for decades. It's a vivid, dramatic story that is breathing new life into the Moon as a setting for science fiction.

Here the lunar colony is a brutal world where resources are so scarce that every breath of air, every sip of water, has to be paid for. Inevitably, in such an unforgiving setting, the tough rise to the top, and the Moon is divided between a handful of ruthless family-controlled corporations. In a story that is a cross between Dallas and The Godfather, McDonald describes the outbreak of a war between these families, a war in which megadeath is all too easy to arrange.

Why it's on the list:

In novels like River of Gods and The Dervish House, McDonald has brilliantly evoked the details of everyday life in a near-future India or Turkey. Now he turns that talent to the Moon, and the usually rather sterile image of the lunar colony becomes a place of colour and fashion, and bloodshed. This is likely to be the most influential Moon novel of the 21st century.

Books in Luna Series (2)

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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.

Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1961 HUGO

In the days of the Cold War, the Moon became either a symbol of freedom (as it was in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), or the opposite, an image of alienation, mystery and threat. And no novel evoked that sense better than Rogue Moon.At the time, the Moon was believed to present the same face to Earth at all times, so there was a mysterious, unseen, dark side of the Moon, which was an appropriate location for menace.

It is on the dark side that an alien installation has been discovered in this novel. The artefact is a maze, and everyone who tries to penetrate it is killed. People are sent there by matter transmitter, but each time they are killed in the labyrinth it affects their sanity back on Earth, until one man is found who is unaffected by being killed over and over again, until gradually he penetrates to the very heart of the mystery.

Why it's on the list:

This is one of the most profound of all Cold War thrillers, in which death is the price of discovery.

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Godwin was Bishop of Hereford, and this extraordinary story was discovered among his papers after his death. Read today it is hard to realise what an amazing work it was, incorporating scientific ideas that wouldn't become commonly known for many years, and at the same time having an unexpected effect upon scientific thought.It is the story of Domingo Gonsales, a luckless picaresque anti-hero, who, after various adventures, finds himself cast away on the island of St Helena.

In an attempt to escape, he builds a carriage which he harnesses to a flock of wild geese in the hope that they will carry him away to the mainland. But, in keeping with the common ideas of the time, the geese migrate to the Moon and Gonsales is carried away with them. On the journey he experiences weightlessness, long before that became accepted scientific knowledge. On the Moon he discovers an entire society of tall, pale beings, where greater moral worth is reflected in greater height; because Gonsales is small and dark, therefore, he is soon cast out and returned to Earth.

Why it's on the list:

This was the first work of any sort to imagine a mechanical means of conveyance to the Moon. When it appeared, in 1638, John Wilkins had just published a work that represented the very latest scientific thinking about the Moon, and in the light of Godwin's fiction, Wilkins produced a revised edition of his own book in which he discussed for the first time the scientific feasibility of creating a means of travel to the Moon.

The book also influenced generations of science fiction writers, up to and including Jules Verne, so it can be fairly claimed to be one of the most influential books in the entire history of science fiction.

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Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1963 HUGO

This is one of those short, intense novels that encapsulates all the dangers of life on the space frontier in one gripping episode. In this case, a cruise ship on one of the dust seas of the Moon sinks, and a race against time follows to locate the ship and rescue the passengers. But throughout the story the realities of life on the lunar colony keep intruding to shorten the odds and spell out what life in space is really like.

The air supply aboard the ship is limited, the build-up of heat induces CO2 poisoning, metal-rich dust gets into the double hull and short circuits the batteries, the liquid oxygen stored aboard the ship threatens to explode. It is such a simple story, and yet the introduction of danger after danger makes it an absolutely gripping read.

Why it's on the list:

Our knowledge of the Moon has changed quite a bit in the half a century or so since this was written, but it remains a vivid example of how sf writers of the golden age were true to then scientific knowledge about the reality of life on the Moon.

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Talking of scientific knowledge, one of the fascinating things about this early account of a journey to the Moon is that Verne dispatches his space voyagers from a base not too far from Cape Canaveral in Florida, anticipating the actual space centre by nearly a century. Less reassuring is the fact that the space capsule is fired from a gigantic cannon, a means of propulsion that would, in reality, have flattened everyone in the craft.

That aside, this novel and its sequel illustrate the fascination that the idea of travel to the Moon has held for so long. The first novel concerns the building of the giant cannon, and ends with the three travellers fired successfully into space. The sequel describes their journey to the Moon, their orbit around it, and their return to Earth, ending eventually with a splashdown in the sea.

Why it's on the list:

Leaving aside the notion of using a cannon to fire a projectile at the Moon, this was one of the most scientifically accurate of the early Moon voyages, and in many ways anticipated the actual nature of the NASA missions a hundred years later.

Books in Extraordinary Vo... Series (50)

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This is one of a trilogy of novels that Baxter wrote exploring what might have happened if the history of NASA had gone differently. In this instance, he imagines that the Apollo 18 mission actually went ahead, but among the Moon rocks it brought back was a strange substance described as "moonseed". When some of this substance contaminates a NASA mission to Venus, Venus blows up. The resulting cosmic radiation that bathes the Earth triggers the moonseed, which starts to disintegrate the planet by heating up the core. In a desperate race against time to escape the inevitable destruction of the Earth, a team of scientists attempt to terraform the Moon to provide a refuge.

Why it's on the list:

Like all too many of Baxter's novels, this is a story that ends with the destruction of the Earth; but it creates an unusual mixture of Moon novel and disaster novel that is terrifyingly convincing in its detail.

Books in NASA Series (3)

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Award Nominations:1993 HUGO, 1993 LocusSF

Alien invaders have obliterated human life on Earth, and the survivors have scattered through the rest of the Solar System. The most heavily populated colony is Luna, the Steel Beach of the title. Here a dystopian society has developed in which the Central Computer controls every aspect of life. The story follows a journalist, Hildy Johnson, who begins to uncover groups of people hiding from the Central Computer, and in the course of the research learns secrets about the Central Computer that threaten the stability and even the survival of the entire colony.

Why it's on the list:

Between the last manned mission to the Moon and the renewed technological interest in a lunar colony that we are beginning to see in the 21st century, the Moon tended to be of interest less for realistic accounts of life on the Moon than as a setting for satire. This dystopia is a superb example of the way the Moon served that purpose.

Books in Eight Worlds Series (3)

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There has been a theory put about that the Moon's gravitational influence played a part in the development of intelligence on Earth; here, Bob Shaw turns that idea on its head. It turns out that humanity had long-since colonised the galaxy and developed instantaneous teleportation; then civilisation collapsed. The human society that grew up on Earth has been prevented from developing teleportation precisely because of the gravitational influence of the Moon. Now the humanoid Mollan have decided to solve that problem by simply blowing up the Moon.

The story is told through the relationship of an irascible human male and an exile Mollan female, whose brusque, often acerbic encounters provide a wonderful window into human and Mollan societies, and into the details of this deeply disturbing plan.

Why it's on the list:

Since his death, Shaw's work has probably not had the recognition it deserves, perhaps because he tended to work on a small canvas where the major effects were emotional rather than spectacular. But when he got it right, he was unbeatable at presenting mind-blowing ideas in a vivid and accessible way; and even if The Ceres Solution is not his absolute best, it still deserves to be high on this list.

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Before he became the most influential editor in the history of science fiction, Campbell was an author of remarkable, scientifically savvy stories that clearly presaged the golden age he helped to bring in. This fine novella is an excellent example of why he should be celebrated as an author as much as as an editor.

Even since Daniel Defoe, people have been writing robinsonades in which individuals or small groups are cast upon inhospitable islands. In works like No Man Friday and The Martian, science fiction writers have reimagined that desert island as Mars, but long before that Campbell had set this remarkable robinsonade on the Moon. It's the story of a small group of scientists whose spaceship crashes on the Moon. They then have to combine their expertise in order to survive until they can be rescued, which means devising a shelter to protect them from meteor showers and finding a way to manufacture enough oxygen for them to breathe.

Why it's on the list:

With his precise attention to technical details, Campbell set the scene for the lunar stories to come throughout the Golden Age.

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One of the joys of combining science fiction and the detective story is the way that life on another world or with different technology can complicate the crime, while the patient solution of the crime helps to explain the setting. And that's exactly what we get with Niven's novel.It was the fourth novel he wrote featuring his detective Gil Hamilton. In this instance, Hamilton is on the Moon to attend a conference on Lunar Law when one of the other delegates is shot. The shot seems to have come from outside on the lunar surface, and the only person who was out on the surface at the time is someone Hamilton is convinced must be innocent.

Why it's on the list:

It's only surprising there aren't more crime stories set on the Moon: solving the crime really is an excellent way of solving the puzzle of what it's like on the Moon.

Books in Known Space Series (7)

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Given the colourful planetary romances that were so popular before and after the First World War, it would have been surprising if the Moon hadn't featured. But this version, while as exotic and as full of action as anything else by Burroughs, is rather different from his usual fare. It's set in a future where the First World War was just a preamble for the communist world and the rest that lasts until the ultimate victory of the US and UK in the 1960s. To celebrate the global peace, a mission is sent to the Moon, only to discover unsuspected races living below the surface like Wells's Selenites. Among these are the evil Kalkars, who join up with a rogue Earthman to invade Earth.

Why it's on the list:

The Moon shouldn't just be a place of technological challenges, it should be associated with wild adventure also. And that's exactly what Burroughs provides.

Books in The Moon Series (3)

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Award Nominations:1998 NEBULA

One of the things we see time and again on this list is that the Moon is very often presented as a threat, whether it's the threat of invasion in Burroughs or the threat of destruction in Baxter. But this could be the ultimate threat. A comet is going to hit the Moon; and when it does the fallout is going to have a devastating effect right across the Earth.What will happen to the newly-established Moonbase? And what can the President of the USA do to prevent panic and ensure the survival of his people?

Why it's on the list:

McDevitt has always been an accomplished writer of stories about people facing massive and complex decisions, and as the focus of this novel shifts between the Earth and the Moon the decisions don't come much more massive, or more complex.

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Like Rogue Moon, which came out at around the same time, and presaging Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, A Space Odyssey in odd ways, this is a novel about the Moon as mystery.The hero is a prospector, hoping to strike it rich, but without very much luck. In the end he has to take a wild gamble, so he heads for the mysterious crater, Tycho. Thirty years before, two ships and nearly a dozen astronauts disappeared without trace in Tycho; since then, two further expeditions have vanished, so now, no one wants to go near the crater. But Chris Jackson doesn't really have a choice, and the alien artefact he finds there will change everything, for ever.

Why it's on the list:

This is a tightly written and very effective short novel, but Simak still finds the space to include lots of fascinating incidental detail about life in the lunar outback.

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If many of the stories we've included on this list treat the Moon as a threat, there are equally those, like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Steel Beach, in which the Moon is a refuge, whether from earth politics or from the destruction of Earth. And that's what we get in this novella: a thermonuclear war back on Earth leaves the small lunar colony isolated. But survival isn't easy, many go mad, fighting breaks out, terrifying gases are unleashed within the lunar habitat. In the end, a handful of people face having to restore order. And always there is the threat of the Moon itself, and the dangerous equipment being used, so that it is very much a story of survival against the odds. Meanwhile the hero, a loner who likes nothing better than to drive his truck out into virgin territory, finds he has to start taking responsibility for others.

Why it's on the list:

This is the sort of hard sf that Swanwick produced effortlessly at the start of his career, and though short this is a gripping and acute picture of life on the Moon.

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We said earlier that Godwin's The Man in the Moone was one of the most influential works in the history of science fiction, and this is one of the earliest and most dramatic signs of that influence. Cyrano even appropriated Godwin's anti-hero, Domingo Gonsales, for this comic novel.

Also known as The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, the story concerns a luckless hero, also called Cyrano, who first attempts to reach the Moon by strapping bottles of dew to his body, which will help him to fly when the dew evaporates. This fails, so he builds a new device which also fails, but local soldiers affix rockets to the wreckage as part of a celebration, and the rockets shoot him off to the Moon. Here he meets strange, four-legged aliens, and a variety of figures including Domingo Gonsales, with whom he has satirical conversations about the state of the world.

Why it's on the list:

It's a bit of a stretch, but Arthur C. Clarke has claimed that this is the first appearance of rocket-powered space travel in fiction. Clarke also credits Cyrano with the invention of the ramjet. Even if you don't agree with Clarke, you have to admit that this is an extraordinary lunar fiction.

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If you want to see how much sf from the last quarter of the 20th century ignored the technical realities of the Moon, look no further than this sometimes absurd sometimes very moving often comic novel. Here the Moon is no more than a backdrop, the real focus is on a courtroom upon the Moon. An entrepreneur wants to turn Jupiter into a mini-Sun in order to terraform the moons and relieve the population pressure on Earth. But another corporation wants to stop him, so they have him charged before a blatantly corrupt lunar court. The question is: what can the psi-powered defence lawyer do to save the entrepreneur's life?

Why it's on the list:

Lunar Justice is hardly Harness at his best, but he can still write genuinely convincing and moving human relationships, moreover, it's not often you see the Moon as a setting for comic science fiction, which is an excellent reason why this is on the list.

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John Gribbin and Marcus Chown are two highly respected science writers who occasionally turn their talents, and their expertise, to science fiction. So you know that what you are going to encounter here has been rigorously worked out.

These two novels are set in the same future, but 1,000 years apart. In Double Planet, a comet is on a collision course with Earth. While a team of astronauts prepares a mission to try and divert the comet, another team of scientists embark on a desperate plan to make the Moon habitable as a refuge for survivors. In the sequel, Reunion, the lunar colony is facing a new threat as the atmosphere begins to fail: the only solution may lie back on Earth.

Why it's on the list:

If you like your science fiction really hard, and the science really feasible, you really can't do much better than Gribbin and Chown.

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For the last 30 years, Ben Bova has been composing an intricately interconnected sequence of novels that explore the human colonisation of the entire solar system. Inevitably, the Moon plays a key role in that story, and it is at the centre of two novels collectively known as the Moonbase Saga.

In the first of the novels, Moonrise, Moonbase is a failing colony, losing money and in imminent danger of being closed down. But when an astronaut dreams of establishing a new, sustainable colony on the Moon he faces unexpected opposition. By the second novel, Moonwar, the new Moonbase is the last redoubt for research into nanotechnology, which has been banned on Earth. When the Earth sends soldiers to shut the research down, a new kind of war develops.

Why it's on the list:

Exciting as the idea of a human colony on the Moon might be, in the long term it can only ever be a springboard to the rest of the solar system, and within the sequence of novels that make up Bova's Grand Tour, the Moon is firmly located within that context.

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Like Stephen Baxter, Johnson imagines that the Apollo programme continued. In this case, Apollo 19 arrives at a point on the Moon where ice has been detected, but when it comes time to leave, the ascent engine fails to fire and the two crew members find themselves marooned on the Moon. Setting out to explore as much as possible before their resources are exhausted, they chance upon an ancient, abandoned lunar base whose humanoid crew all died violently. Exploring the base, they realise that the base was established by humans from Earth before Noah's Flood, which the NASA commander interprets as a message from God.

Why it's on the list:

This is science fiction as Christian propaganda, but it is an interesting example of the type and illustrates yet another way in which the Moon plays upon our imagination.

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This is yet another novel with the Moon as threat, and another which plays with the idea of the dark side of the Moon. In this instance a superweapon is being constructed on the farside of the Moon, a weapon which would give absolute mastery of the solar system. Except it's not a weapon to start with.

A geologist from the Moon finds himself in the middle of a major political battle when he reveals that an asteroid that has been captured for mining could be a major threat to the earth. His views are taken up by a fanatical fringe group, while the corporations intent on mining the asteroid are after his blood. But on the farside of the Moon he finds an automatic factory building a massive communications laser that he realises could be repurposed.

Why it's on the list:

In many ways this is a quite simplistic adventure story, and Allen certainly has a flair for the melodramatic. But at the same time he provides some intriguing and often amusing insights into the nature of lunar society.

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Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Journal of the Plague Year among many others, is not generally recognised for his science fiction, but in fact he wrote one of the most peculiar of early voyages to the Moon. The vehicle is a winged chariot powered by fuel and fire in a manner that makes it sound strangely like a combustion engine of some sort, but the fact that the number of feathers on the wings matched the number of seats in parliament demonstrates that the whole thing is meant more satirically than scientifically.

Once on the Moon the traveller discovers a host of marvels, ranging from a seat that can read thoughts to a glass through which could be observed all the happenings back on Earth. But what we really get is a rather vicious satire on the Royal Society (all learned men are described as idiots) that is similar in many ways to the flying island of Laputa in Swift's Gulliver's Travels which came out some 20 years later.

Why it's on the list:

Defoe was something of a rabble rouser, notorious for his controversial conservative ideas, and he would use the Moon as a platform from which to lash out at what he saw as the idiocies of his day not just in this novel but in a whole series of pamphlets and essays written around the same time. This is an important, if now little known, episode in the history of Moon literature.

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Comments (0)
Award Nominations:1972 NEBULA

Elsewhere in this list we have seen the Moon as both a threat and a refuge, but it is also used as a symbol of difference, not just the political difference in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but a physical and psychological difference.

The Gods Themselves tells of the relationship between the Earth and a parallel universe, one that could, unknowingly, be disastrous for both. In the final third of the novel the scene shifts to the Moon, where people have developed a very different physique from those on earth. They would take the differences even further if genetic engineering had not been banned. This signifies how far they have diverged from familiar humanity, and at one point in the novel they even contemplate taking the Moon out of earth orbit and even further away from our planet.

Why it's on the list:

The Gods Themselves was Asimov's favourite among his novels, and also probably one of the best. The way it demonstrates the growing difference between people of the Earth and people of the Moon is one of the more telling moments in Moon fiction.

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There are some (Adam Roberts, for example) who argue that this is the first work of science fiction, though there are many other contenders for that title. Published posthumously only a few years before Godwin's The Man in the Moone, which was also posthumous, it takes the form of a fantasy that incorporates many of Kepler's ideas about astronomy.

Kepler recounts a long, complicated dream in which daemons transport people to "the island of Levania" (their name for the Moon), a journey which involves extreme cold, shortage of air, and the need to accelerate away from Earth and then, once the Lagrange point is passed, to decelerate towards the Moon. Once on Levania, the traveller learns lots of scientific details, such as how an eclipse would look from the Moon and the relative sizes of the planets.

Why it's on the list:

Whether or not one agrees with Adam Roberts, there is no doubting the importance of this narrative in the early history of science fiction.

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