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Top 100 Best Science Fiction Books

Top 100 Best Science Fiction Books of All Time

This list is a direct continuation to the Top 25 Best Science Fiction list...started from the 26th book.

It's always a tricky proposition to suggest the best of anything. My best, quite simply, will never be the same as your best. 

Because a 'Top 25 Best of the Best Science Fiction Books' list is not broad enough to include ALL the outstanding science fiction works that have been released over the past century, we've decided to list the Top 100 books, starting from #26 to #100. 

It was quite a challenge creating this list because, well, there were so many science fiction books that HAD to be included. But with only 75 spots available, stuff still had to be left off. But if you did NOT see a certain work in the Top 25 list, it's probably in THIS list.

The Top 100 list tries to encompass both old and new science fiction from every genre and from both male and female authors. We (Paul and I) spent a very long time arguing about each and every single entry on the list -- so I assure you, this was not a haphazardly created list. There's a lot of thought behind each book entry.

With that said, THIS is the list covers that we feel comprehensively recommends the greatest science fiction books ever written. 

If our curated picks are not enough, please look at the CROWD RANKED version of the list where YOU, the INTERNET, decided on the book positions. You can even submit your own entries to the list -- we have nothing to do with that list.

NOTE: THIS IS #26 on the TOP 100 LIST. The first 1-25 entries are found on THE TOP 25 BEST SCIENCE FICTION LIST. Dhalgren is one of the peculiarities of science fiction, a novel that is insistently experimental in form and content, pushing the genre in direction to which it is normally resistant, yet it was a best seller almost from the moment it was published, has remained very popular ever since, and regularly appears on lists of the best science fiction. It remains a novel that people scratch their heads over (to this day, no one is quite sure exactly what the title refers to), yet it is a novel that people return to again and again.

The setting is Bellona, a Midwestern city that has somehow become cut off from consensus reality, a place where strange things happen. At one point there are two moons in the sky, at another the sun apparently fills half the horizon, and time does not follow a regular or consistent pattern. A young man who may or may not have escaped from a mental hospital and who does not even remember his own name, enters the city. There he joins the city's down and outs, joins a gang that wears projection devices to make them appear like massive animals, and becomes an acclaimed poet.

But the novel opens in mid-sentence and ends in mid-sentence, suggesting everything is circular. There are hints that what we are reading is taken from somebody else's notebook that the kid cannibalises for his own poems. And echoes of the Greek myths keep breaking through amid the violence and explicit sex. It's an extraordinary novel that will keep you guessing and keep you enthralled.

Why It Made the List

This is a book you will either love or hate. Harlan Ellison threw it against the wall; Theodore Sturgeon called it a literary landmark. The one thing you cannot do is ignore it. This is, quite simply, one of the most important novels in the history of science fiction.

Alternative Choice

An equal alternative choice for #26 on the Top 100 is Nova.Nova is a roller-coaster of a space opera that was one of the most important precursors of cyberpunk. It's got it all: the space jockeys are plugged directly in to their computers, they use drugs, and even use the tarot; all of which found their way into cyberpunk (and William Gibson included several very specific references to the novel in Neuromancer). It's the story of a spaceship captain who gathers together a crew of misfits in a race to harvest a substance that will change the balance of power in the galaxy, it's also a story that very closely follows the model of the Quest for the Holy Grail.

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This novel has been hailed as one of the best hard sf stories written this century. It's an awesome novel, packed with invention and new ideas and challenges to the way we think. You have to keep your wits about you when reading it, but it is well worth the effort.

In the near future, all sorts of genetic engineering and viral plagues have created a variety of posthumans, including Vampires, an ancient but very intelligent predator, and Zombies, who are highly effective and very obedient as soldiers. Then, signs start to be detected of an alien presence on the outskirts of the solar system. The story mostly concerns the journey of a ship, the Theseus, to investigate the aliens. The ship is captained by a vampire and crewed by transhumans with an AI, plenty of opportunity for intercrew conflict along the way. But things really hot up when they reach the Oort Cloud and find a vast starship whose crew have no individual consciousness, but who operate as a sort of hive mind which makes them far quicker to respond and therefore far more dangerous than the humans.

Consciousness, it turns out, is bad news. Human self-awareness generates a noise that threatens the normal intelligence of the universe, so the aliens are here to quarantine the Earth as they would for a plague.

The book as a whole raises a host of intriguing questions about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities and cost of transhumanity. I guarantee, you'll come away from this book with your mind buzzing.

Why It Made the List

Cutting edge ideas, challenging questions, a stunning action-packed story: what more do you want from your science fiction? This is the true quill, and pretty damned good it is too.

Books in Blindsight & Seq... Series (2)

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Awards Won:1987 CLARKE
Award Nominations:1986 NEBULA, 1987 LocusSF

Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite.

It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred.

The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale.

Why It Made the List

The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book.

Alternative Choice

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

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Award Nominations:2000 BSFA, 2001 CLARKE

Throughout its history, one of the strongest and most interesting aspects of science fiction has been its use in satire. And this is just about the most stunning of contemporary satires, one that is still remarkable apposite.

It's set in a near-future America where the Christian right has won. Civil rights have been eroded, and in particular the rights of women have been completely removed. Following the coup, a family try to escape from America but are captured; the woman is separated from her husband and child (who she does not see again) and becomes a handmaid, that is a concubine. Her name is changed to "Offred" because she is literally the property of Fred.

The novel reveals the workings of this dystopian state through the experiences of Offred in this household as she is alternately helped and misused by Fred and by his wife, and also her growing awareness of a resistance movement, though how helpful that movement might be is left ambiguous at the end of her tale.

Why It Made the List

The Handmaid's Tale won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award and was also shortlist for a host of other science fiction and mainstream awards. It has since been made into a film and into an opera. This is one of the most powerful works of feminist science fiction you are likely to read, an absolutely essential book.

Alternative Choice

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in which three male explorers happen upon an isolated community consisting entirely of women, who have long since learned to reproduce by parthenogenesis. The story concerns the very different attitudes towards women of the three men, and the ways they come to terms with the utopian society that the women have established.

Books in Revelation Space Series (5)

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Award Nominations:1966 NEBULA, 1967 HUGO

Science fiction doesn't always handle the emotions very well, there's a tendency for sentiment to become sentimentality. But one novel really gets to the heart without any false mawkishness. Flowers for Algernon is science fiction's most sublime tragedy, and I defy anyone not to be moved by the story.

It's the story of Charlie Gordon, who is educationally subnormal. He has a job at a bakery, where he is the butt of spiteful jokes by his fellow workers though he doesn't realise this, and he tries hard to better himself by attending school. Then he has the chance to take part in a revolutionary new procedure that will radically improve his intelligence. The story is told in Charlie's own diary, and we can see the procedure starting to work as his spelling improves, and the writing becomes grammatically correct. In fact, he becomes a genius, giving up his job at the bakery after catching his colleagues cheating the owner, then joining the researchers. He particularly observes the mouse, Algernon, who underwent the new procedure before he did. Then, just as the results are about to be announced publicly, he realises that Algernon is becoming confused again, and that the effects are only temporary.

Frantically, he tries to find a solution, but we witness the writing in his diary slowly begin to revert to the ungrammatical and ill-spelled style it was originally. At one point, Charlie visits a local asylum, which he sees as a place of horror, but we know that he is inevitably going to end up there. If you don't choke up with the slow terror of the ending, there's something wrong with you.

Why It Made the List

Flowers for Algernon was originally a short story that won the Hugo Award, when it was expanded into a novel it also won the Nebula Award, and it was then made into an Oscar-winning film, Charly.

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Awards Won: NEBULA, 1986 HUGO
Award Nominations:1986 LocusSF, 1985 NEBULA

Ender's Game is the story of a young boy placed in a situation where he must compete with other boys in a constant succession of violent games. In fact, ruthlessness is rewarded, and when Ender Wiggin kills another boy he gets a coveted place at Battle School. Here, often in zero gravity, he plays out more and more war scenarios, where his tactical genius and no-prisoners-taken approach marks him out for success.

He is promoted again, to Command School, where he takes part in ever more brutal battle simulations, without being aware that these are actual battles against an alien race known as the "buggers". Finally, sickened by all the violence, he is presented with his ultimate challenge. Vastly outnumbered around the enemy's home world, he sacrifices most of his own forces in order to destroy the planet. Only then does he learn that this was actually happening under his direction.

It's a novel that attempts to have it both ways. Ender is a kid growing up in a harsh world who is used by those around him to their own ends, and when we learn that the whole war was a mistake it does rub home the anti-war message. Yet at the same time it cannot be denied that Ender is directly responsible for huge numbers of deaths throughout the novel while engaged in action that we are meant to find thrilling and exciting.

Why It Made the List

Ender's Game won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, a rare double, that shows just how highly acclaimed the book was at the time. If Card's reputation has taken something of a tumble lately (largely because of some very ill-judged remarks he has made), and the standing of Ender's Game has fallen along with it, there is still no denying that this was an incredibly powerful and influential book.

Alternative Choice

On the other hand, for a very different take on the natural cruelty of children, you can't go wrong with Lord of the Flies by William Golding. With nuclear war threatening, a group of English public school boys find themselves stranded on a desert island. At first they treat it all as a great game, but gradually the game turns serious as bullies emerge, horrors undermine any vestige of civilisation, and eventually one boy is killed. Golding's schoolboys aren't all that far from the trainees in Ender's Game, but the message the book conveys is diametrically opposite.

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Neologisms, new words, are part and parcel of what science fiction does. All sf authors invent new words, because they have to have names for the new ideas they introduce, and sometimes those words enter the language. But surely no word has entered the language as quickly as the word apek invented: robot. The English translation of apek's play was first put on in London in 1923, and within weeks the Times of London was casually referring to robots as if it expected all its readers to understand the term. And they did, and we've been using the word ever since, even if our modern robots are very different from apek's originals.

The word robot is derived from a Czech word meaning drudgery, and in the original play, subtitled "Rossum's Universal Robots", they are made out of a synthetic organic material. That means they are more what we would call cyborgs or androids than the metal monsters that robots quickly became. But here they are beings who could easily be mistaken for humans.

At first the robots, manufactured by Rossum's factory, are perfectly happy to do drudge work for humanity, but as the world's economy becomes more and more dependent on robot labour, so the robots become more independent-minded, and eventually they revolt. As the humans become more inhuman in their callous treatment of the robots, so the robots become more human, eventually taking over the world.

Why It Made the List

It's hard to imagine science fiction without robots, and though there were artificial beings before apek, it was still he who effectively invented them and introduced them to science fiction.  Which makes this one of the most influential plays ever written.

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Science fiction isnt always meant to be comfortable or easy reading. Quite the opposite, any literature so based on ideas must challenge the reader, make them think differently (if only for as long as it takes to read the book), and that is what Octavia Butler did with her fiction. Being both black and a woman shines out in her work, which constantly makes us rethink our notions of gender and race. This pattern of daring us to think the unthinkable comes out particularly in the three volumes, Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago that make up this sequence, later retitled Liliths Brood. 

It starts with military adventurers unleashing a nuclear war that wipes out most of Earth. The few survivors are rescued by an alien race, the Oankali. The Oankali are physically repulsive, instead of eyes, ears and other familiar sense organs, their bodies are covered with tentacles with which they perceive the world. Moreover, they have three sexes, male, female, and a third sex, ooloi, who are able to directly manipulate genetic material. When, centuries later, the humans are roused from stasis, they find the Oankali have made the Earth habitable again. The Oankali are ready to help the humans survive on the planet without their old technology, but in return they want to interbreed and raise a hybrid race. The balance between the repulsiveness of the aliens and the survival of humanity lies at the heart of the work. When the Oankali and the humans do settle on the renewed Earth, the ooloi make sure that humans are infertile so that the only children born are hybrids. This leads to inevitable tensions between the two races until, by the end of the trilogy, the genetic value of the hybrid race is proved. 

Why It Made the List 

Octavia Butler received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center and a MacArthur Genius Grant, which shows how highly regarded her work was. And this really is a genius of a story that makes you think harder than just about any other science fiction.

Books in Xenogenesis Tril... Series (3)

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A while ago there was a fear that experimenting in nanotechnology would turn everything into "grey goo". Well, if you want a story that represents that idea, this is the one for you.

Virgil Ulam is a biotechnologist attempting to turn his own lymphocytes into nanowire, but when he is instructed to close his experiment down, he injects the "noocytes", as he calls them, into his own body so he can smuggle them out of the laboratory and continue working on them elsewhere. He doesn't get the chance, the noocytes multiply, become self-aware, and rapidly take over Ulam's body.

At first his eyesight improves, he becomes healthier, but then he starts to change in other, less welcome ways. Meanwhile, he is highly infectious and the noocytes rapidly spread to others until in a very short time the whole of North America is infected. Physical bodies start to lose their human characteristics, becoming a strange, biological mass. But the noocytes are genuinely better, a new evolutionary step that only requires that people surrender their humanity in order to go along with it.

 Why It Made the List

This is a stunning, disturbing novel. Once you've read it, you won't be able to get it out of your mind. The original story won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette, and the novel takes the story even further, making it one of the pioneering works of post-humanity.

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The Commonwealth Saga is a vast, sprawling space opera that is spread over several novels and short stories. In a precursor to the main series, Misspent Youth, a rejuvenation procedure and memory crystals allow the people of the Commonwealth to live virtually forever. But the series really gets going with Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, which are set some 300 years later when humans have discovered wormhole technology which has allowed them to colonise scores of planets across hundreds of light years. Then astronomers discover that two distant stars have been enclosed within Dyson Spheres virtually simultaneously.

When a ship is sent to investigate, they unleash an alien race that believes the only way to secure its own future is to wipe out every other sentient creature in the universe. What follows is a desperate, devastating war in which the humans are finally able to lock the aliens within their Dyson Spheres once more, but only at tremendous cost.

Set 1200 years after these events, the Void Trilogy, The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void take the story further with an object called the Void at the heart of the galaxy. Although the Void resembles a black hole, it is not a natural object, and the Raiel believe it threatens all life in the galaxy. So when an expedition from the Commonwealth wants to enter the Void, it sets in motion all sorts of conflicts.

Most recently, The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first of two books set between the original Commonwealth series and the Void Trilogy. It concerns an attempt to infiltrate the Void and rescue humans trapped there, only to discover that the laws of physics are different and the key to escape is held by a race of merciless killers.

 Why It Made the List

"Space Opera doesn't get much more epic," one reviewer said at the end of the Void Trilogy. A cast of thousands, a vast span of time and space, spectacular storytelling, science fiction really doesn't get much meatier than this.

Books in The Commonwealth... Series (6)

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Pierce Brown hit the ground running with his very first novel, a compelling, fast-paced story that is already drawing comparisons to The Hunger Games and Ender's Game.

In the colour-coded society of the future, Darrow is a Red, the lowest caste. His job is to toil in the mines all day, but he believes that by his labour he will eventually make the surface of the world habitable so that future generations will be able to live in the sun. Then he discovers that the surface was made habitable generations ago. Then higher castes live among vast cities and sprawling parks, provided for by the Reds who work in ignorance deep underground.

Thirsting for revenge, Darrow joins a resistance movement. But in order to bring down the ruling class he has to infiltrate the top levels of society and become just like his enemies.

 Why It Made the List

This is a brand new debut novel that is already attracting a lot of attention. It's gripping, fast, full of spectacular action, and just the thing to keep you excited for the future of science fiction.

Books in Red Rising Trilo... Series (3)

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Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time. It sounds like a fairly conventional time travel story. But this is Kurt Vonnegut, and nothing he wrote was ever conventional. In fact, the novel opens with a chapter that lays out how Vonnegut came to write the novel, so we know from the start that this is a true story with an exaggeratedly fictional overlay.

Vonnegut was in the American Army in 1944. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, he was imprisoned near the ancient city of Dresden. He was in the city during the notorious allied bombing raid that resulted in a devastating firestorm, and he had to help with rescue details and clearing up afterwards. Those experiences are at the core of the novel.

Vonnegut's alter ego in the novel is Billy Pilgrim. Young and nave during the war, he goes on to become anoptometrist, have a not particularly happy marriage, and be kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. But because he is unstuck in time, he has no control over the sequence in which he experiences these events. Although he returns again and again to the war, he will then abruptly shift to his imprisonment on Tralfamadore with a pornographic movie star, or the tragi-comic experience of his wife dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of a car crash as she rushed to visit him in hospital, or his earlier introduction to the works of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout.

The result is one of the most intoxicating novels of all time, a smorgasbord of science fiction and comedy, memoir and tragedy. So it goes.

 Why It Made the List

Slaughterhouse Five regularly appears on lists of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, and if you ever go to Dresden you can take a Vonnegut Tour of the actual Slaughterhouse Five. It's the blend of the real and the fictional, the terrible and the hilarious that makes this a totally unforgettable novel.

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In the early 1920s, the manuscript of Zamiatin's novel, We, was smuggled out of Soviet Russia to be published in the West. One of the people who reviewed that novel was George Orwell, who would later write his own version of the story in 1984. But the novel that came first, and according to some critics the better book, was We.

The One State, a dictatorial world government, everyone lives and works in glass buildings so that the secret police can see everything that they do. Like Jeremy Bentham's idea of the Panopticon, everyone must behave because at any moment they might be under observation. It is a world where there is no such thing as individuality, everyone wears identical clothing and people are known only by numbers.

D-503 is an engineer on the spaceship that is meant to carry the rule of the One State to other planets. He meets a woman, I-330, who is a free spirit disobeying the normal rules of the One State. D-503 is fascinated by her and so cannot bring himself to denounce her to the secret police. He finds himself drawn into a rebellion against the state, but after an operation that removes all human imagination and emotion he becomes a fervent devotee of the Great Benefactor.

 Why It Made the List

Weis one of the greatest of all dystopias, a wonderful novel that helped to inspire Brave New World, 1984 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. It is hard to imagine the dystopian fiction of the twentieth century without We.

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It is the summer of 1816. Mary Wollstonecraft is 18, and is travelling through Europe with her lover of two years, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The couple arrive in Geneva in May to stay with Lord Byron, who has rented a villa there along with his mistress, Claire Claremont, and his young doctor, John Polidori. But it turns out to be a miserable summer, and they spend the rainy evenings telling each other ghost stories. Then, they challenge each other to make up new stories. Polidori produces The Vampyre, a precursor of Dracula. Mary, after a nightmare, and recalling the current experiments by Galvani, comes up with Frankenstein. The novel was published, anonymously, two years later, then a revised edition under her name appeared in 1831.

The novel is the story of a young and impatient scientist, Victor Frankenstein who, experimenting with electricity, manages to bring life back to dead flesh. He makes a living being from bits of dead men, but he sees the creature as ugly and so abandons it. Alone and terrifying anyone who sees it, the creature still manages to teach itself to speak and to read, and eventually he seeks out Frankenstein to persuade him to make a mate. Frankenstein agrees, but destroys the female before animating her; in revenge, the creature kills Frankenstein's fiance on the eve of their wedding. Eventually the two, creator and created, disappear into the wastes of the North Pole.

 Why It Made the List

According to Brian Aldiss, Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel. Even if you don't accept this, there's no denying that it was one of the most influential books in the entire history of the genre. Everything from Jeckyll and Hyde to Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, owe a debt to Frankenstein.

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Awards Won:2003 PKD

We are carbon. But in Richard Morgan's hard-hitting cyberpunk novel, our carbon bodies can be altered by taking our digital memories from an input in the spine and inserting them into a new body. There is some disorientation, which is why elite fighting units are specially trained in mental techniques to allow them to prosper in new bodies, which are called "sleeves". Nevertheless, this technique effectively allows people to live forever, and it has virtually ended the crime of murder since, once they are in a new sleeve, the victim can readily remember exactly who killed them.

Then one rich and long-lived man appears to commit suicide, and the cortical stack in which his memory is stored is destroyed. When he is revived from an old back up, he has no memory of what immediately preceded his death, but he is convinced he was murdered. So he hires Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-elite soldier haunted by his last mission, to find out the truth.

The novel is hard and violent, there's torture and multiple deaths all through the book. As Paul Di Filippo has pointed out, more of Kovacs's allies get killed than his enemies, so it would actually pay to get on his bad side. But there is no denying that this is a gripping story. 

Altered Carbon won the Philip K. Dick Award. It's a novel that brings cyberpunk into a gritty and convincing future, and no matter how much you may want to look away you have to keep reading, you can't help it.

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Awards Won:1969 HUGO, 1969 BSFA
Award Nominations:1968 NEBULA

In the 1960s, when overpopulation was a common worry for the future, it was often said that the entire population of the world could stand on the Isle of Wight. John Brunner imagines a future in which it would take a much bigger island to accommodate the world's population.

The book is a kaleidoscopic account of life in this bustling, busy, crowded world. To capture the clamour of it all, Brunner adopted the technique that John Dos Passos used in his great modernist trilogy, USA. So, in the sections headed "Context" we find newspaper headlines, classified ads, extracts from books that give us an idea of all the different things going on in the world. The sections headed "The Happening World" are just a mass of single sentences: a line of description, an overheard remark, part of a conversation, all the noise of the world that is going on around us all the time. "Tracking with Close-Ups" gives us brief glimpses of what minor characters are doing, or a glimpse of events away from the main action. Finally the main storyline is contained in the sections headed "Continuity".

Throughout it all we get a dramatic sense of the impact of high population. Society is fracturing, eugenics legislation is being introduced, extremist politics is on the rise, there are shortages and wars and terrorist atrocities and advances in bioengineering. At the heart of it all, a big multinational corporation is in the process of taking over a small African country, while an American spy is investigating a technological breakthrough in South East Asia.

No work of science fiction before this had been so inventive, so exciting, so engaged with the modern world. And it is still a damned good book that feels every bit as fresh and as new as it ever did.

 Why It Made the List

This novel made John Brunner the first ever British writer to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it also won the BSFA Award and the French Prix Tour-Apollo. Even today it is still being acclaimed for its originality and its dazzling accomplishment. It remains one of the great sf novels.

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Award Nominations:1998 BSFA

Queen City Jazz was the first novel by Kathleen Ann Goonan, and the first volume in her Nanotech Quartet, which deals with a future America radically transformed by nanotechnology.

In this first volume, it seems as if the world has suffered a bizarre apocalypse, with exotic creatures and plants all over the place, and with an unexplained Silence imposed upon the world. The heroine, Verity, is a clone who sets out on a quest to resuscitate her dead boyfriend and also to find her telepathic dog. The quest continues in the second volume, Mississippi Blues, reaching its climax in a transformed New Orleans. The third volume, Crescent City Rhapsody, is a prequel to the series, detailing the gradual sequence of events that led to the nanotech transformations and also to the imposition of the Silence. Finally, in the fourth volume, Light Music, we learn that all that has happened is not a catastrophe but a moment of transcendence, as humanity prepares to take its place among the stars.

As the titles of the four volumes indicate, each bookrecapitulates the rhythm of a different style of music. But what we mostly remember from the books is visual, the richness of colour and life that is a direct result of the nanotech transformations wrought in the different novels. This is a world you will not forget.

 

The Nanotech Quartet has received glowing praise from a host of top sf writers, ranging from Joe Haldeman and Gregory Benford to Kim Stanley Robinson and William Gibson. It's a rich and delirious story that introduced us to the notion of nanopunk.

Books in Nanotech Series (4)

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Awards Won:1961 HUGO

During the 1950s and 60s, as the Cold War constantly threatened to heat up into nuclear exchanges, science fiction writers more and more turned to imagining a post-apocalyptic world. This novel, the only one that Miller published in his lifetime, is surely one of the absolute best.

It starts some 600 years after the nuclear holocaust that is known as the Flame Deluge. The survivors had set out to destroy all learning, fearing that it would lead to a return of the forbidden nuclear science, but a Jewish electrician, Leibowitz, had founded a religious body dedicated to preserving books from before the war. Now a young monk in the Order discovers an ancient abandoned fallout shelter with writings that may have belonged to Leibowitz himself, including a handwritten shopping list. The survival of these documents is seen as emblematic of the survival of humanity itself.

600 years later, and a renaissance is just beginning. But as the monks of Saint Leibowitz share their accumulated knowledge with local leaders, they find themselves being used as pawns in a war of expansion. Another 600 years pass, and scientific knowledge has returned more or less to where it was before the Flame Deluge. But the political differences and petty wars continue, and it soon becomes obvious that nuclear weapons will again be used. So the Order of Saint Leibowitz builds a starship in order to escape the holocaust and continue their mission of preserving knowledge.

 

A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award. Miller was one of the few sf writers of the time to use religious themes in his science fiction, and it helps to give this novel an intellectual depth and an emotional richness that are quite exceptional. This is regularly and correctly recognised as a masterpiece.

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Whenever you put a list of books together, you'll always get disagreements. But this could well be the most controversial choice of all, because J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition has always been controversial, ever since the stories that make it up were first published in New Worlds.

The stories that make up The Atrocity Exhibition were what Ballard called "condensed novels", stories that were reduced to intense, often hallucinogenic images, with much of the normal connecting material we expect in fiction removed. The effect was maddening and intriguing, flashes of lucidity and passages of weird insanity. Put together, they constitute an account of a descent into madness brought on by the incessant imagery of the modern world.

The protagonist, if we assume it is the same character across the different stories, is variously called Traven or Travis, Talbot or Talbert; he is a doctor in a mental hospital who is himself going mad. The mass media and the cult of celebrity, events such as the death of Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of President Kennedy, the space race and the threat of war, all contribute to his psychosis, and he is constantly trying to recast them in ways that make sense to him. Some of the condensed novels, for instance, have titles such as "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" and "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" demonstrate how violent these delusions are, as if only the start of World War III will make sense to him.

 

No work better represents the character of the New Wave in science fiction, a literature of radical experiments (not always successful, but generally very interesting), and a literature in which the landscape of the mind ("inner space") is at least as important as anything in the outer world. This is challenging, disturbing, often irrational, and one of the most extraordinary achievements in the whole of science fiction.

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Larry Niven's Known Space, a small colonised region of the galaxy, has provided the setting for something like a dozen novels and several short story collections, but easily the best of them is Ringworld.

Louis Wu is recruited to join a small expedition to explore a strange phenomenon, an artificial ringworld surrounding a sol-type sun. The ring is about a million miles wide and 600 million miles in circumference, so it's habitable inner surface has a land area equivalent to three million Earths (Niven likes to deal in big numbers). When the ringworld's automatic defences cause them to crash land, they have to combine their exploration of this phenomenon with trying to find a way to leave again.

Along the way they discover ruins of an ancient civilisation, natives who worship them as Ringworld Engineers, others who have been shipwrecked on the ringworld, and more. It's a stunning concept, the sort of megastructure that no-one had thought of before, but ever since Niven's novel similar ideas keep cropping up in other books, such as the Orbitals in the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. The exploration of the ringworld makes for one of the great adventure stories in hard sf.

 

Ringworld won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. It's the sort of high concept sf that Niven does effortlessly, and you'll surely love every moment of it.

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It began as a radio series on the BBC. It was quickly adapted for television (with many of the same cast), and much later there came a film version (though the less said about that the better). But it is now probably better known as the novel, which became a trilogy, which in turn became a trilogy in five books, only now there's a sixth book as well (not to mention the various towels and computer games and stage shows and so on).

What it is, is easily the funniest work of science fiction ever written. Frankly, if you don't laugh at this, you're not going to laugh at anything.

We all know the story, even if Douglas Adams did keep making changes in each new version of the work. Arthur Dent wakes up one morning to find his house is about to be demolished, but as he tries to protect his home he discovers that his best friend, Ford Prefect, is actually an alien from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and that the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspatial expressway. From that point, Arthur is whisked away on a series of increasingly absurd adventures that include Vogon poetry, the Infinite Improbability Drive, ZaphodBeeblebrox former President of the Galaxy and wanted criminal, Marvin the Paranoid Android, the answer to life, the universe and everything, which happens to be 42 but they forgot to ask what the question was. And on, and on. Don't panic, the whole thing is infinitely improbable and gloriously hilarious.

 

Check it out. There isn't very much science fiction comedy because it's incredibly hard to do, and even harder to do well. This is on the list for the very simple reason that it is laugh out loud funny whether or not you're an sf fan, and that makes it just about unique.

Books in Hitchhiker's Gui... Series (8)

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Awards Won:1992 CLARKE
Award Nominations:1991 NEBULA

Synners are jacked-in outlaws, hooked on the astonishing worlds of virtual space as an escape from the grim, depressing industrial reality around them. But, hot-wired in to cyberspace, they have unleashed a wildfire virus that doesn't just trash the system; it can trash your brain as well.

The battle between streetwise cyberpunks and the emergent AI that is starting to kill off their friends and colleagues makes for one hell of ride. It's a world overwhelmed by the sheer noise of what is going on, an incessant pounding of information and rock music and advertising that makes for the dark, mean, dystopian streets of this thriller. A vision of the future that feels far too close to reality today.

Intricately plotted, fast paced, utterly convincing, this is the epitome of the cyberpunk thriller.

Synners won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It is everything that cyberpunk set out to be but so rarely achieved, a brilliant thriller and a chilling vision of a digital world not that far from our own.

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There aren't that many sf novels that give their name to an entire subgenre, but Jack Vance's The Dying Earth did just that.

The original volume is a collection of loosely linked stories, set at a time when the Moon has disappeared, the sun is fading, and the various civilisations that still survive on the Earth have all collapsed into decadence. It's a bleak and a barren world, cold and grim, where monsters roam. Science has long since failed as a guiding principle for life on earth, and magic has reasserted itself, though much that seems most weird and strange might be the aging consequences of evolution and genetic engineering. Nevertheless, the role of magic in this far future world helps make The Dying Earth one of the defining works of science fantasy.

The picture that emerges through this book and its sequels, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous, is of a world of unaccountable ruins, of marvellous technologies whose secrets have long since been lost, and of a fatalistic people who regard curiosity as highly suspect. Most of the stories that make up the series involve anti-heroes trying to steal or cheat, while all around them is an essentially uncaring world.

 

Vance is a writer often given to rather ornate prose that you'll either love or hate, but for those who love it, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all science fiction writers. Much of his work has been influential, but these stories are particularly so.

Books in The Dying Earth Series (5)

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Pavane is a sequence of linked stories set in the 1960s in a world in which the Spanish Armada had succeeded, Catholicism had defeated Protestantism, and the Church ruled Britain in a way that limited all technology. Although there are signs of modern life, such as road trains and semaphore signal stations that criss-cross the country, there is still a form of feudalism in place. The different stories each provide a vignette of ordinary life that together build up into a powerful and impressive portrait of the world.

A young man operating a road train is cheated by his best friend, who attempts highway robbery. A signalman at a remote station is injured and as he lies dying is visited by a fairy (who did not flit from Britain with the coming of Protestantism). A monk who witnesses the tortures of the Inquisition starts to tour the country as an itinerant preacher recounting visions that seem to bear a resemblance to our own world. A young woman from a depressed and blackened town, sees a white boat that she imagines will be her passport to a better life, but it turns out to be smuggling forbidden technology and she ends up betraying it to the authorities. A woman related to the family who run the road train in the first story marries into the aristocracy, but discontent at the rule of the Church grows and she ends up leading a rebellion that may be doomed to failure.

 

Keith Roberts was one of the finest writers ever to produce science fiction in Britain, his work is moving and vivid, with a wonderful evocation of landscape and a detailed knowledge of small, everyday technologies. All of which comes out in what many consider to be his best work and which the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction rates as the finest of all alternate histories.

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There's a long tradition of science fiction using crime story plots, but this is surely the most startling, the most original and the most satisfying of all.

It begins with Inspector Borlu of the Besel police investigating the murder of a foreign student. There are plenty of buildings around the site where she was found, but nobody there would have seen the murder, because the buildings are in UlQoma. Besel and UlQoma share the same territory, but they are two separate cities, and by long tradition the inhabitants of one city do not see those in the other. They could be walking down the same street, and to the resident if one city it would appear empty and to the resident of the other city it would be crowded. This unseeing is rigidly enforced, not least by Breach, an extra police force that operates between the two cities and that has the power to make anyone who breaks its rules disappear.

This is no problem for Borlu, not seeing UlQoma is second nature to him. Unfortunately, the more he investigates the crime, the more it involves both cities, and it leads Borlu to investigate things that are taken for granted, the underlying assumptions of both cities, the things that are not seen.

 

The City and the City won China Miville's third Arthur C. Clarke Award, along with a Hugo Award, BSFA Award, Locus Award, World Fantasy Award and a Kitschies Red Tentacle. It's an intriguing crime story, and an absolutely fascinating account of an extraordinary place.

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The words have become so commonplace we hardly realise we are using them: Big Brother is watching you, the Ministry of Truth, Room 101, Newspeak, thoughtcrime. George Orwell gave us a language for describing our fear of any controlling and intrusive government.

Winston Smith is a minor clerk in a future where the world's three great power blocs are constantly at war with one another, though alliances shift daily, and his job is to rewrite old newspaper articles so that the historical record always supports whatever is today's party line. It is a world where everyone is under surveillance all the time; the ubiquitous telescreens are always on, always spouting the party line, and always watching you.

Winston meets a colleague, Julia, and realises that they both share the same distrust of the regime. They begin an affair that would be forbidden by the state, but the agents of the state are watching them all the time. Eventually they are arrested and Winston is taken to Room 101 to be tortured into betraying Julia and swearing his love for Big Brother.

 

Nineteen Eighty-Four is regularly listed among the best novels in the English language; it is also one of the scariest. No other account of a totalitarian regime has so captured our imaginations. It's a chilling book, but absolutely brilliant and unforgettable.

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Carl Sagan was a prolifically talented astronomer, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, as well as being one of the best science popularisers of his age. He was particularly important in considering questions relating to extraterrestrial life: his work was central to demonstrating how hot the surface temperature of Venus is; he demonstrated that amino acids could be generated from base chemicals by radiation; and he was responsible for the messages intelligible to extraterrestrial intelligence that were aboard Pioneer and Voyage. And all of that experience he poured into his only work of fiction.

Contact is about what might happen if humanity starts to receive messages from more intelligent extraterrestrial life. Ellie Arroway is a researcher on SETI when she discovers a message coming from the Vega system. Gradually, Ellie and her colleagues learn to decode the message, and find it is the plans for a space vehicle. When it is built, Ellie is one of the five passengers who are transported via wormholes to a place near the heart of the Milky Way, where she meets an alien who appears to her as her dead father. On her return to Earth, Ellie is able to prove that intelligence is built into the structure of the universe itself.

This really is science fiction: that is, fiction with real science built in. Reading this is like getting a glimpse of how interstellar communication might actually work, and what the actual ramifications of contact with another race might be. It's the sort of novel that makes you thrilled about science again.

 

Contact won a Locus Award for First Novel, but it's not really about awards. It's on the list simply because this is the best example of how science and fiction can meet and work together.

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Award Nominations:2010 BSFA

After a whole string of stories about global warming, biotechnology, gene hacking and other ways we can threaten our global food supply, which together virtually defined the new subgenre of biopunk, Paolo Bacigalupi then took the ideas another stage further with this stunning novel.

It's two centuries from now, the sea levels have risen, fossil fuels are exhausted, and biotechnology has created as plagues and pests that have devastated world food supplies. So any genetically pure stock of seeds is a precious resource. Thailand may have just such a stock, and the AgriGen agent in Bangkok will do anything to get his hands on it.

This is the setting for a story that involves a sexually-exploited humanoid "Windup Girl", a rogue GM elephant, a deadly new plague, smuggling, extortion, murder, embezzlement, and a coup.

It's a vivid, vicious, terrifying and utterly convincing portrait of the future. You'll keep reading because there's so much going on you just have to know what happens next, but every time you put the book down you shiver and think that's exactly what the world is going to be like.

 

The Windup Girlwon the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and tied for the Hugo Award with China Miville'sThe City and the City. It's a fabulous novel that will keep you up nights.

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There were the golosses of millicents telling them to shut it and you could sloshy the zvook of like somebody being tolchocked real horrorshow.

Alex and his droogs are out for a good time, which in their case means an evening of ultra-violence and rape. Which is great until the droogs turn on Alex and leave him out cold at the scene of a murder. So he ends up in prison, where they offer him a way out: the Ludovico Technique. This is supposed to turn him into a good, clean, model citizen; it's a sort of aversion therapy which makes him sick at the thought of violence. Unfortunately, it also makes him sick at the music of Beethoven, which used to be the one good thing in his life before. And when they let him out of prison he doesn't have any defences when he meets up again with his old gang, or with his former victims.

Short, to the point and unrelenting; this is a book that's as hard hitting as its antihero. Told in a made-up language called Nadsat that combines bits of Russian criminal argot and rhyming slang, it takes you into a dystopian world that will leave you shocked and chilled. Yet at the end of it, as much as we hate Alex's casual attitude to violence, we end up asking ourselves whether it is morally right to deprive someone of their capacity for evil.

 

A Clockwork Orange has won prizes and been banned in almost equal measure. The bravura use of language means it never grows stale, and it provides a direct link into the mind of an extraordinary character.

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Earth Abides is something of a rarity among the work of George R. Stewart. He wrote mostly biographies and studies of American history, and when he did write fiction, as in Storm or Fire, they tended to be accounts of natural disasters with few or no human characters. Earth Abides was not just the only work of science fiction he produced, it is also the only work that concentrates on human relationships. Yet it was recognised as a classic from the moment it appeared.

Like Storm and Fire, Earth Abides is a novel of natural disaster, but the main focus of the novel is on showing how unfitting modern civilisation is for coping when things go wrong. Ish Williams is a resourceful young man out in a remote part of California who falls ill from a strange disease. He manages to pull through, but when he gets back to civilisation he finds that by far the greater proportion of the population has been killed by that same disease, and many of the survivors aren't coping very well. One is drinking himself to death, another couple seem to have gone mad, and so forth.

Slowly, Ish begins to gather a small community around him, but as the conveniences of modern life break down the younger members of the community grow ever more suspicious, while reverting to old ways, like making bows and arrows or hunting with dogs. Eventually, in old age, Ish recognises that the old ways are gone for good and hopes that the new society will not get around to reinventing civilisation.

(Although not a science fiction author, there is an oblique connection to the genre in the book. The name "Ish" is a reference to the Yahiindian, Ishi, who was the subject of anthropological work by Alfred Kroeber, the father of Ursula K. Le Guin.)

 

Earth Abides is a classic that has barely been out of print since it was first published. It was one of the first works of science fiction to introduce ideas of ecology and anthropology to the genre, and still today it is recognised as one of the most influential of all science fiction works.

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One of the joys of science fiction, one of the things that keeps us reading, is that it regularly produces writers who are unlike anyone else, whether in the field or not. There are any number of unique voices out there, producing visionary work that is strange, beautiful and totally original. Of these, Cordwainer Smith is probably the most outstanding example. Poetic, luscious, weird, his stories take us into futures that are so different and so captivating that they stick forever in the memory.

Cordwainer Smith was really Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare and a noted Chinese scholar (his godfather was Sun Yat Sen). He had tried writing for years with very limited success, a couple of mainstream novels, a thriller, even a little science fiction, before he adopted the pen name Cordwainer Smith for a story called "Scanners Live in Vain" that appeared in an obscure and short-lived magazine. Fortunately, it was spotted by Frederik Pohl, who reprinted the story in an anthology. Even so, it would be several years more before another Cordwainer Smith story appeared. But then the flood gates opened, a host of glorious, enchanting stories appeared between the mid-50s and the mid-60s when he died.

The Rediscovery of Man is the complete and definitive collection of Smith's short fiction, arranged according to internal chronology. Because practically all of his stories are set within the same far-reaching future history that involves the Instrumentality of Mankind, which started out as a sort of police force in a post-apocalyptic future but grew to become rulers of the galaxy, while genetically modified animals such as C'Mell (Cat Mell) or D'Joan (Dog Joan) do the work.

The stories, with wonderfully evocative titles like "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal", and "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-At-All", catalogue the struggles of the Underpeople in a rich and richly imagined world, the psychological terrors of travel in space, the extraordinary punishments and enduring loves suffered by outsiders in this bright new world.

 

Frankly, any best of science fiction list that didn't include Cordwainer Smith wouldn't be worth a fig.

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In the late 1960s stories suddenly started to appear from a writer no-one had heard of before, and no-one had met. But the stories were just too good, too quirky, too powerful to come from a complete novice. So all sorts of rumours began to spread. Because the stories came from Langley, Virginia, Harry Harrison decided that the author must work for the CIA. Robert Silverberg, meanwhile, declared that there was something ineluctably male about them, a view that, to be fair, most other people agreed with, even those who were in communication with the mysterious James Tiptree. Then, inevitably, the truth came out: Tiptree was really Alice Bradley Sheldon, daughter of a writer, who had worked analysing reconnaissance photographs during the war, had briefly been an unsuccessful chicken farmer, and was currently studying to become a psychologist. She was also the most original, most surprising and most powerful short story writer in the genre.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is as close as we have to a definitive collection of her short stories. It includes all her award-winning fiction, including "The Screwfly Solution" which won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette and which suggests that male violence against women is actually the result of a virus; "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" which won the Hugo Award for Best Novella is a precursor of cyberpunk, it tells of a cruelly deformed girl who becomes a global media celebrity thanks to an avatar that she controls remotely; "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella, it tells of the three male astronauts whose ship is somehow displaced in time, who return to Earth to find that all men have been wiped out and they have to come to terms with a peaceful all-female society; and "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story, which tells of an alien creature that tries to resist its violent primal urges.

The collection also includes other classics such as "The Women Men Don't See", in which, following a plane crash in the Amazon, two women choose to go off with aliens rather than stay with their male companions; and "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side", which explores sexual obsession with the alien.

 

Tiptree won a fistful of Hugo and Nebula Awards and was, for a while, the most celebrated writer in science fiction. Her work is individual, explores gender issues in a way that no earlier writer had ever done, and is consistently challenging and absorbing. You don't forget a Tiptree story.

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Like his friend, J.G. Ballard, Aldiss was one of the founders of the British New Wave. Unlike Ballard, however, he was a restless writer always trying to do something very different from what he'd done before. Thus his books included experimental fictions and very traditional fictions, and works that fell somewhere in between, as this major trilogy did.

At some point in the distant future, a space station from Earth, Avernus, is placed in orbit around Helliconia, and the story across the three volumes, Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, is based on the close observations of the planet from this station. Helliconia has a Great Year roughly equivalent to 2,500 Earth years, and through generations of characters we follow the rise and fall of civilisation across these immense seasons.

There are two intelligent species on Helliconia, the phagors which flourish during the intense cold and dark of the centuries-long winter, and the humans who come into their own as the world starts to warm up. Gradually we learn that the two have a sort of symbiotic relationship, but they aren't aware of this and it does not prevent intense and violent rivalry between the two species.

Watched from space over the course of millennia, we see the ways geology and climate, religion and biology all affect each other, and how civilisation is so fragile in the face of these greater natural forces. The result is a tour de force of informed, deeply researched environmental science fiction.

 

The first volume in the trilogy, Helliconia Spring, won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Taken together, the three books represent the most sustained and richly imagined work of world building that Aldiss has ever achieved.

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We all know what happens when aliens invade: there's a big fight and then the aliens are driven off, or humanity is reduced to servitude. Well, no. We've got enough experience of colonisation to know it's not usually like that. And the Aleutian Trilogy is the best work to date to consider alien invasion in the light of colonised and coloniser.

In the first volume, White Queen, the Aleutians arrive quietly in Africa, but their arrival has severe political repercussions throughout the world. In particular, we see the world as exhausted, running down, and opposition to the mysterious, technologically advance newcomers is neither as complete nor as energetically pursued as most alien invasion stories would lead us to expect.

By the second volume, North Wind, the Aleutians are more established but no less mysterious. One of the key features of this trilogy is that Jones has created truly alien aliens, beings whose motivations and intentions cannot readily be understood in human terms. But, typically, the human response to the invasion has been to splinter and war against themselves. We begin to see that one of the underlying themes in the trilogy is to reimagine gender terms. Now "men" refers to anyone, male or female, who is aggressive, attack-oriented; "women" refers to anyone who adopts a more peaceful, nurturing role; and there are "half-castes" who attempt to be as much like the Aleutians as it is possible to be.

In the third volume, Phoenix Caf, the aliens are preparing to leave, but humanity has become so dependent upon their masters that this loss of leadership could be devastating. The world has been transformed by the biotechnology that the Aleutians brought, while more and more humans are having themselves surgically altered to look as much like the aliens as possible. The inevitable conspiracy is more a sign of desperation than anything else, the colonised don't want to be free of the coloniser, they just want to remake themselves into their own image of the coloniser.

 

White Queen won the James Tiptree Award, an indication that this is one of the finest works of science fiction that explores and rethinks gender issues. But it does so in a colonial context that makes it one of the most subtle, original and powerful works of alien invasion ever written.

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Awards Won:1968 HUGO
Award Nominations:1967 NEBULA

The barriers between science fiction and fantasy are porous, but even so it is usually pretty clear whether you are reading one or the other. But Lord of Light is a science fiction novel that reads like fantasy (or perhaps it is the other way round), an intentional ambiguity that is typical of the work of Roger Zelazny.

The crew of the "Star of India", refugees from vanished Earth, find themselves on a planet where the indigenous people are hostile. To survive, the crew use electronic equipment, biofeedback and other techniques to give themselves greater powers that allow them to subjugate the natives. As a result of these powers, including a form of identity transfer that gives them virtual immortality, the crew begin to take on the attributes of the Hindu pantheon.

But one of the crew revolts against the idea of being a god. He decides to bring the benefits of technology to all mortals, and so takes on the role of Buddha, effectively recapitulating the story of the arrival of Buddhism as he gradually works to cripple the power of the gods.

 

Zelazny, on form, was always a colourful writer, using mythological structures to tell highly complex psychological tales. Of these, Lord of Light, which won the Hugo Award, was easily his most sustained and effective.

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When the black monolith appears in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, A Space Odyssey, or the demons in Childhood's End, that is Uplift. But what if humanity has reached into space and yet somehow avoided uplift? That is the premise of David Brin's Uplift sequence.

In the universe of the six novels that make up this sequence, galactic civilisations uplift races that are capable of space travel. In a highly structured and hierarchical society, the patron races then have certain rights over the races they have uplifted. But humans have no patron, though it remains unclear whether their patron abandoned them or whether they achieved interstellar travel all on their own. The lack of a patron makes humans the weakest of the many races that make up the Civilisation of the Five Galaxies, but because they have themselves uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins, they have become a patron race in their own right and therefore are theoretically free of interference by other races.

It's a crowded universe, with many different races each vying for territory and for status, which means that the novels tend to revolve around duplicity, betrayal and conflict, with the rough and ready, anti-hierarchical approach of the humans tending to win out, though often only with the help of their chimpanzee and dolphin companions. It is skilful, varied and convincing portrayal of so many different aliens, each with their different customs and motivations, that is the real strength of this series.

The series begins with Brin's first novel, Sundiver, but this really acts as a prologue to the series with the action confined to our solar system. It is with the second book, Startide Rising and its sequels, The Uplift War, Brightness Reef, Infinity's Shore and Heaven's Reach that the series really gets going, with continuing characters and a canvas that takes in many different worlds and races.

 

Startide Rising won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, while The Uplift War also won the Hugo and Locus Awards. It was a big series that marked the arrival of a major talent on the sf scene.

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He had reached the age of 650 miles. With its very first words, Inverted World tells us we are in a very different world. In fact, this is one of the great unique inventions of science fiction. Helward Mann, who is 650 miles old, lives on Earth. But Earth is a city set on rails that must forever move forward. Ahead is a spike that rises to infinity, and anyone who gets too far forward of the city finds themselves becoming elongated. Behind them is a flat, featureless plain where every feature they have passed, every person they have passed, is squashed smaller and smaller. Only by staying at optimum can the city avoid either fate, but since the ground is constantly moving, they have to keep the city moving too, taking rails from behind and repositioning them ahead of the city so that regardless of the obstacles they can trundle a few precious yards further forward.

With incredible skill and grace, Priest very gradually reveals the truth about this hyperboloid world, providing at the very end a twist makes us re-evaluate every single thing we think we have learned.

 

Inverted World won the BSFA Award. It's a novel that is universally recognised as being breathtakingly original and leading to a devastating psychological breakthrough. After reading this, you'll never see things the same way again.

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In his pioneering study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis argued that The Space Merchants was possibly the best science fiction novel ever written. In the fifty-odd years since then, little has happened to change that judgement.

The Space Merchants is a coruscating satire that just gets more relevant with every passing year. It's set in a world where all the real power is held by corporations. As a result, the most important business in the world is advertising, convincing people that each new product is making their lives better and better, even though necessities like fuel and water are in increasingly short supply. Does that sound like the world today? You bet it does.

Our hero is a top copywriter who has been given the job of attracting colonists to Venus, even though the planet is so inhospitable that it will be generations before it is fully habitable. But there are conspiracies going on that he is not aware of, and in time he is shanghaied and his identity stolen. Nevertheless, his copywriting skills make him a powerful propagandist for the revolutionaries, and eventually he is able to unravel all the lies and mysteries that have been going on.

 

Kingsley Amis was right: this is still one of the best sf novels ever written, an unsurpassed example of science fiction as satire that you just have to read.

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When Hugo Gernsback wanted to define "scientifiction" in the very first issue of Amazing, he called it the "Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells type of story". It puts Verne right at the core of science fiction, a place that he still holds.

From the appearance of his very first novel right up to his death, Verne was easily one of the most popular and successful writers in Europe, acclaimed in particular for his "Voyages extraordinaire", carefully researched stories that took his adventurers into strange and dramatic places, usually pushing at the technological possibilities of the time. From outer space to the centre of the world, from extraordinary flying machines to even more extraordinary submarines, he took us to places we'd never seen before and made it all convincing and exciting. One of his greatest successes explored an underwater world that no-one had seen before.

Hunting what is rumoured to be a giant sea monster, Professor Aronnax and his companions are surprised to find themselves taken aboard a submarine of incredibly advanced, not to say luxurious, design. Here they meet the enigmatic Captain Nemo, the archetypal Jules Verne figure, a great scientist who is also a bold adventurer and driven by a thirst for revenge. Aboard the Nautilus they travel right around the world, seeing everything from coral reefs to Antarctic ice shelves, from sunken vessels to the Transatlantic cable.

Okay, Verne's books are more journey than plot, but the journeys are always marvellous, and, because he took such pains to get everything right according to the scientific knowledge of the day, absolutely convincing.

 

Verne is one of a very small handful of writers about whom we can safely say that, without them there would be no science fiction. He's not always been well served by his English translators (which is one reason they have often been presented as books for children), but even so they have gripped generation after generation, and more than a few later writers owe their inspiration to Verne.

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In 1952, a young Philip Jos Farmer wrote a novel for a contest, and won. Unfortunately, the prize money was misappropriated, the novel was never published, and Farmer nearly gave up writing as a result. But more than a decade later he began reworking the material from that unpublished novel, first as a novella, which later still became part of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which in turn became the first volume in a series that would go on to contain four more novels and a collection of stories.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go begins with the British explorer, Richard Burton, dying on Earth and waking up on the shore of a mysterious river. There are others there, figures from different periods of Earth's history including a Neanderthal, an alien who wiped out all life on Earth in the 21st century, and Alice Liddell, the original of Alice in Wonderland. Burton sets out to explore the river, and almost immediately finds himself fighting Hermann Goring who has set up his own kingdom on one part of the riverbank. Burton finds out that when he is killed he is reborn at a different point on the river, and he uses this device to continue his journey and eventually come face to face with the Ethicals who created the Riverworld.

In subsequent volumes, The Fabulous Riverboat, The Dark Design, The Magic Labyrinth and Gods of Riverworld, an ever-expanding cast of characters, including Samuel Clemens, Eric Bloodaxe, King John, Cyrano de Bergerac, Tom Mix, AphraBehn and Jack London, further explore the river, and come ever closer to solving the mystery of the Riverworld.

 

To Your Scattered Bodies Go won the Hugo Award. Basically this is just one big epic adventure that gives Farmer an excuse to throw in any historical figure he likes at any point in the story. There's no great depth to the story, but it is great fun.

Books in Riverworld Series (5)

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Ever since H.G. Wells, time travel has been one of the great staples of science fiction, but few writers have approached the subject as grittily or as thoroughly as Connie Willis. In her loosely linked sequence of novels, time travel is a device used by students at a near-future Oxford University, who travel back for practical experience of the period they are studying. There are limits, points in history that the time machine will not penetrate because the past might be altered or periods that are considered too dangerous to visit. One such period, of course, is the Black Death.

Kivrin is sent back to study rural England in 1320, a period safely before the plague struck, but something goes wrong and she arrives more than 20 years later than intended, just as the Black Death reaches the village in Oxfordshire that she is visiting.

At the same time, a new strain of influenza hits Oxford just after her departure, incapacitating the time travel technician, leading to the entire city being quarantined and meaning that no-one is aware of exactly when Kivrin is.

Alternating between these two times and these two plagues, we get two rather different stories. In 21st century Oxford there's a race against time as people battle illness to try and discover where Kivrin is and how to rescue her. But far more moving is the story set in the 14th century, a harrowing account of the onset and effects of the Black Death, in which Kivrin has to helplessly stand by and watch the villagers, people who have cared for her and who she has got to know, dying one by one. Until finally she is on her own, not strong enough to dig the last grave.

 

Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and is easily the best of the time travel stories Willis has written. For once, the past that is visited is not prettified, is not colourful and romantic, but harsh, ugly, terrifying and real.

Books in Oxford Time Trav... Series (4)

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Award Nominations:2004 HUGO

First serialised on his website before it was taken up by a major publisher, Scalzi's debut novel is an amalgam of Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

In the novel, Scalzi reverses the popular notion that it is young men who go away to fight wars while old men stay at home. John Perry, the central character in the novel, is 75 years old and retired when he volunteers to join the Colonial Defence Force. He and other senior citizens undergo a series of psychological tests before their minds are transferred into new bodies built from their own DNA material and bioengineered to give them extra strength, stamina, enhanced eyesight and other advantages. It includes a neural interface that allows members of the force to communicate with each other by thought alone.

The story follows Perry through basic training and on to deployment in a series of conflicts with different alien races. Resourceful and quick thinking, Perry is generally able to secure victory in these battles, which earns him rapid promotion even as he is becoming increasingly disillusioned by the war.

 

When Tor.com polled its readers to find the best sf novel of 2000-2010, Old Man's War came top. Although it harks back to some of the most traditional themes in science fiction, it is undoubtedly one of the key works of the new century.

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Awards Won:2006 HUGO
Award Nominations:2006 LocusSF, 2006 CAMPBELL

One night, when he is 12 years old, Tyler Dupree and two friends witness all the stars in the sky suddenly disappearing. It turns out that a membrane has been placed around the Earth. An artificial sun allows daily life on Earth to continue as normal, but the membrane has had a profound effect upon time: one year passing within the membrane is equivalent to one hundred million years outside. So people on Earth don't have too long before the sun grows big enough to destroy the planet.

It's a bravura opening, the sort of startling, big concept idea that creates a genuine sense of wonder. And Wilson really follows through. All the way through Spin and its two sequels, Axis and Vortex, there are moments that just stop you dead in your tracks.

At one point a ship penetrates the membrane and delivers colonists to Mars. Just two years later Earth time, Mars has a sophisticated technological civilisation, and a membrane is thrown around that planet too.

Eventually we discover that the membrane is the work of intelligent von Neumann machines, dubbed Hypotheticals, who do it to slow down time for societies close to collapse to allow time for a solution to be found. No sooner do we discover this than in another brilliantly vivid moment a massive arch opens up in the Indian Ocean which serves as a gateway to another world.

Axis takes us to that other world, but more puzzles about the Hypotheticals soon emerge, and with them more time dilation. Which becomes extreme in Vortex, where the storylines alternate between 40 years after the events of Spin and 10,000 years after the events of Axis.

 

Spin won the Hugo Award, and was one of the most widely talked about novels of the day, simply because it is so awesome at creating amazing vistas and startling events.

Books in Spin Series (3)

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In Billion Year Spree, his epic history of science fiction, Brian Aldiss coined the term "cosy catastrophe" for the sorts of novels that John Wyndham wrote. Well, they are certainly catastrophes, but they are far from cosy.

The first and best of them is surely The Day of the Triffids, in which there is actually a double catastrophe. Triffids are tall, carnivorous plants that are capable of locomotion and that there probably bioengineered in the Soviet Union before escaping into the wild. At first they present no danger, but then there is a curious meteor shower which is assumed to be connected to atomic weapons, and everyone who sees it is rendered blind. Now the triffids become especially dangerous.

Only a few people retain their sight, one of which is the narrator, Bill Masen, who makes his way through a devastated landscape, menaced by triffids at every turn. The sighted are enslaved by the blind; tentative communities grow up and then fall apart; despotic military governments emerge. It's an amazing vision of a world falling apart almost in an instant.

 

The Day of the Triffids was the first of the great British catastrophe stories that appeared in the years after the Second World War, a novel that has gone on to be taught in schools and dramatized for film and television, so it is one of the few science fiction classics that is familiar to people who never read the genre.

Books in Triffids Series (2)

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Awards Won:1965 HUGO
The Wanderer

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The Zombie Apocalypse has become one of the most pervasive themes in sf and horror over the last few years, so much so that it has escaped genre and become a commonplace idea. What dread is being disguised by this is hard to say, but more and more writers have taken up the theme. But this is where it really started.

Max Brooks has structured his novel like a report by the United Nations Postwar Commission. It consists of a series of interviews, conducted by an agent of the commission called Max Brooks, which piece together the story from the initial outbreak until the devastating end of the conflict.

Zombies are the victims of an incurable virus. They have no intelligence but an uncontrollable urge to eat living flesh, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain. The outbreak is traced back to a boy in China, but it spreads rapidly. Wars of steadily increasing ferocity break out as different countries react differently to the situation: there's a civil war in Israel; Pakistan and Iran blow each other up in a nuclear war; millions flee to the Arctic because the zombies cannot survive the cold, only to die of hypothermia. Eventually the US military goes on the offensive against the zombies, with limited success. By the end of the novel many of the old political problems in the world seem to have been resolved, but at the cost of nearly wiping out life on Earth.

 

When published, World War Z became an international best seller, and revitalised a tired sub-genre of very limited appeal.

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In times to come, whenever dogs gather they will tell tales about the legendary creature known as Man.

City is a collection of linked stories that detail the breakdown, first, of urban civilisation, and eventually of humanity itself. There is no apocalypse in these stories, but people simply become more and more isolated until eventually they die out.

The stories cover a span of tens of thousands of years. Early on we see people leaving the cities because of a fear of nuclear holocaust, but they come realise they prefer the pastoral existence. As people become more and more isolated from their neighbours, they come to rely more on their robot servants, and on their dogs who are given the power of speech.

In a research station on Jupiter, a man and his dog transform themselves into a shape that allows them to survive on the surface of the planet, and discover that their new existence is a sort of paradise. When this knowledge is telepathically conveyed to Earth, more and more people give up their human existence to live transformed on another world.

Meanwhile, the dogs unite all the animals in a peaceful civilisation and the robots recognise that humans can no longer coexist in this world, so they usher the surviving people to another world where, eventually, they die out.

 

City won the International Fantasy Award. Written in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it expresses a common belief that humans are inherently violent and cannot exist in a peaceful society. As such, it captures the spirit of the age perfectly, which is why it stands up today as a classic of the genre.

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Despite his credentials championing hard, rational science fiction, John W. Campbell was a fervent believer in psi powers. Perhaps because of that, whenever telepathy appeared in science fiction, as in Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, it was almost invariably presented as a talent, a power, usually a good thing. But what if it isn't, what if it is of little real value and perhaps even harmful? That is the premise of one of Robert Silverberg's most powerful novels.

David Selig is a telepath, but it hasn't really done him much good. He makes a precarious living hanging around colleges writing essays for students, and using his telepathy to check the details, to get it right. But the power is waning, and since so much of his sense of identity is tied up in his telepathy (useless as it may be), so this loss of power is equated with losing his grip on reality.

One critic complained that Silverberg had made the science fiction elements of the novel pedestrian, but that is precisely the point. The waning powers represent a loss of joy, a loss of creativity, it really is life becoming pedestrian. And the novel is beautifully and movingly written to convey exactly that point.

 

For a period between the mid-60s and mid-70s, Silverberg produced work of the highest quality, and this was undoubtedly the best of the bunch, a novel that combines an intriguing sf idea with psychological insight and brilliant writing: how could it fail!

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We never know exactly what has happened, an apocalypse of some kind that has covered the landscape with ash and destroyed all animal life, but which has left most houses intact. There are human survivors, grubby, ragged, scrounging for what they can get from the houses they come across, or reverting to cannibalism.

Two such survivors are a father and his son, heading south to avoid the coming winter with all their meagre possessions bundled into a shopping trolley. They survive attacks, avoid cannibals, lose most of what they have, then discover a secret cache of food that keeps them going. The father is dying, he thinks about nothing now but keeping his son alive. We are the good guys, he tells him, we keep the flame.

The prose is spare, the story bleak and harrowing, but with the slightest hint of salvation at the end. It is a haunting, terrifying, magnificent book that will keep you up nights.

 

The Road won a host of mainstream literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, yet it also received near universal praise within the science fiction community.

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There have been a host of novels about the last man on Earth, but usually they are isolated, exploring a world denuded of people. But what if the last man wasn't alone? What if the others had risen as if from the dead and were all around him?

When a pandemic strikes, Robert Neville is immune, but everyone else falls victim. But the disease doesn't kill, rather it turns people into something resembling vampires. By night, Neville barricades himself in his home, using garlic, mirrors and crucifixes to keep away his vampiric neighbours. But since exposure to sunlight kills those infected, he can spend the days out and about, scavenging for food and researching the causes of the disease. He becomes a successful vampire killer, until a new strain of vampire emerges, ones that can bear short periods in the sunlight and who are attempting to build a new society.

In a sense this is just an updating of Bram Stoker's Dracula, or a very early precursor of the zombie apocalypse novels ushered in by Max Brooks'sWorld War Z; but it is also a variant on the last man novels that go back to The Last Man by Mary Shelley or After London by Richard Jeffries. Whichever way you read it, I Am Legend is itself a legend, a story that has entered our consciousness, a story that will keep you reading.

 

In 2012, the Horror Writers Association declared I Am Legend the vampire novel of the century. Though really, there's no contest. It's a startling, visceral, thrilling read that stands head and shoulders above any other vampire novel.

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There's an idea you sometimes come across that the dividing line between mainstream "literature" and genre fiction is rigid and unbreakable. That's nonsense. Writers have always crossed backwards and forwards across the line as the spirit took them. One of the most successful has been Michael Chabon who, alongside his Pulitzer Prize winning fiction, has also produced a YA fantasy, steampunk, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, a comic and this brilliant alternate history novel.

The Jonbar point is early in the Second World War, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees from Europe is established at Sitka in Alaska. As a consequence, only two million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but the state of Israel fails. But now, at the beginning of the new century, a new President is determined to end the temporary settlement.

The story focuses on Meyer Landsman, a Sitka detective whose investigation of a murder leads to a rabbi who is also Sitka's leading crime boss, and to a conspiracy to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Murder, religious identity, politics all get mixed up in a complex story full of mysteries and sudden revelations. It's a deep and absorbing work, but it's also great fun.

 

The Yiddish Policemen's Union won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sidewise Awards; it is unprecedented for someone from outside the genre to win so many of the major genre awards.

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Also known as No Blade of Grass, this was one of John Christopher's classic cosy catastrophes, although there is very little that is cosy in this post-apocalyptic tale.

In Asia, a new disease starts to affect rice crops, leading to widespread famine. Soon, the virus mutates and starts to attack all forms of grass, including such staple food crops as wheat and barley. The result is anarchy and panic, amid which John Custance tries to lead his family and friends safely across England to where his brother has a potato farm. Along the way, as their entourage grows, they find themselves abandoning all their old morality in order to survive, including committing murder.

The portrait of a society disintegrating in the face of starvation is what makes this such a compelling story.

 

Cosy catastrophe, the rather demeaning name for a strand of British science fiction in the 1950s and early 60s, was actually a continuation of the scientific romances that imagined various forms of the destruction of the familiar world. Christopher was a master of this, picturing far from cosy worlds in which his protagonists have to become increasingly hardened and ruthless in the face of a fragile environment.

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In the latter years of the 19th century, astronomers detected lines on the surface of Mars, and before long these were being identified as irrigation canals, suggesting notm only that the planet was habitable, but that it had an older and more advanced civilisation than our own. These ideas fed directly into works such as The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. By early in the 20th century, the idea of canals had mostly been abandoned, but the romance of an ancient Mars continued, and it was this romance that Edgar Rice Burroughs caught perfectly in his colourful adventure stories beginning with A Princess of Mars.

In this first novel, Civil War veteran John Carter is fleeing from Indians in Arizona when he is suddenly transported to Mars. Because of the lower gravity, he finds he has super powers, which he puts at the service of the warlike Tharks, the six-limbed green Martians. Then he meets and falls in love with Dejah Thoris, Princess of the humanoid red Martians. He goes on to play a leading part in the political conflicts between the various tribes of Mars, or Barsoom as it is known.

Carter returned to Mars for ten further adventures with his wife, Dejah Thoris, the last of them cobbled together from previously published material long after Burroughs's death.

 

Let's be honest, this isn't great literature. It's crude pulp adventure full of villainous villains and noble heroes, hairs-breadth escapes, abrupt coincidences. It's written in broad strokes and bold colours, but if you want something to keep you turning the page, this is it. And if you find yourself recognising bits and pieces, that's because an awful lot of better sf writers have borrowed from this series.

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If you want to know what hard sf is really all about, then this is the novel you have to read. Hal Clement didn't believe in having human antagonists in his novels, he reckoned that the universe is big enough and bad enough as it is to provide all the opposition you need to make a gripping story. And when you read this, you'll see why. Antagonists don't come much bigger or badder than the planet Mesklin.

Mesklin is highly oblate, which means it is flattened at the poles. This affects gravity, which is three times earth normal at the equator, but a massive 700g at the poles. So when a human probe is lost near the pole, the only way they can recover it is with the help of the locals.

They hire a trader, Barlennan, to find the probe in return for vital information about the planet's weather, which can be dangerous for the Mesklinites. These are low, centipede-like beings who have learned to move slowly and carefully, and who are terrified of a fall under any circumstances. The novel follow's Barlennan's journey, and is mostly devoted to exploring how it is affected by the different conditions shaped by the varying gravity along the way.

 

Mission of Gravity is one of the definitive examples of worldbuilding. It's a story we trust because we trust all the scientific thinking that went into devising such a planet. Still today it is the novel you'd point to as an example of how to do hard sf properly.

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With The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison provided the foundation text of the British Renaissance, or the New Space Opera, or both (depending on who you listen to). Then he turned to writing fantasy while writers as varied as Iain M. Banks and China Miville built on that foundation. With the Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy, he returned to space opera with a work that took it to a whole new level

In the first volume, Light, Michael Kearney is a serial killer in contemporary London who is also a theoretical physicist who is working with his partner on calculations that will eventually pave the way for humans to get into space. At one point their black and white cats seem to pass through the screen of their computer, and of the characters at the centre of the other two strands of the novel Seria Mau is associated with a white cat while Ed Chianese is associated with a black cat. These two strands take place 400 years in the future in a region of space known as the Kefahuchi Tract where all sorts of strange alien technology has washed up.

The second volume, Nova Swing, takes place in Saudade City where an edge of the tract has touched down. The zone has a strange effect on the city, where people seem to appear as if from nowhere then fade away after a few days. Meanwhile some adventurers try to enter the zone for the mysterious technology to be found there, but at tremendous cost.

Finally, in Empty Space, all of these strands come together with a story that again ricochets between the present and the future, or rather that collapses the differences between present and future. The Kefahuchi Tract is an extraordinary invention, but in the end we are left wondering how much of it simply exists within the minds of Harrison's characters.

Light won the Tiptree Award and Nova Swing won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, yet in a sense winning science fiction awards is a curious thing, because the books destroy our expectations of science fiction and rebuild them as something else. They are complex, self-referent, full of puzzles that seem to mean something different every time you re-read the books. It's a work, in short, that makes you think and then makes you doubt what you're thinking.

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How much more could you do if you didn't have to sleep? That's the simple question that starts this superb trilogy.

In this near future world, a philosophy that is becoming ever more dominant is known as Yagaiism, after its originator, Yagai. It's a world view based on the ideas of Ayn Rand, and argues that someone's worth is a measure of their contribution to society. Against which, Kress asks through one of her characters, what do we owe to the beggars in Spain, the poor and helpless who have nothing but their need. This contrast between selfishness and generosity is dramatized in the trilogy by the conflicts arising over sleeplessness.

Genetic modification has allowed some people to live without the need for sleep. Since they can spend a much greater portion of the day productively, the sleepless inevitably learn more, more quickly as children and become more productive and richer as adults. There are other advantages, as well, such as longevity. But there are disadvantages, mainly caused by the increasing resentment and suspicion of the sleepers. For instance, a sleepless athlete is banned from the Olympics because her extended training regime gives her an unfair advantage over other athletes. But as the sleepless band together, so the sleepers find themselves more and more becoming second or even third class citizens.

Over the course of the two subsequent volumes, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride, Kress catalogues the increasing discrimination and the political disintegration that follows on from the division of the country into sleepers and sleepless. It is one of the most carefully thought out and most compelling accounts of the near future you're likely to read.

 

The original novella, that became the first part of the first volume, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Its account of emerging technologies, particularly in the area of genetic engineering, is carefully researched and absolutely convincing.

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Inevitably, there is a continuity between past and future. The present is not a cut-off point between one and the other, but simply a sliding scale in the process of moving along the line. Of course, science fiction novels set exclusively in the future, and historical novels set exclusively in the past, do nothing to display this continuity. Which is what makes David Mitchell's novel so intriguing and so successful.

It starts in the mid-19th century with the journal of an American on a sailing ship in the Pacific who slowly comes to realise that the doctor treating him is actually poisoning him. Then there are the letters of a young chancer in the 1930s who becomes the amanuensis to an old composer and starts an affair with the composer's wife. Next is a thriller set in California in the 1970s as a journalist begins investigating events at a nuclear power plant. In the present day there's the comic story of a publisher on the run from gangsters who finds himself trapped in an old people's home. A clone in a dystopian future Korea confesses to her part in plotting a rebellion by the fabricants. And on a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island an old man relates, in a broken language, his meeting with a woman from a more sophisticated society.

With the exception of the last, each of these stories breaks off at the mid-point, only to be picked up again in backwards order in the second half of the novel. The central character in each story reads the earlier text, but some of the early texts contain echoes of the later stories. Past, present and future, in other words, interconnect and feed off each other in a story of human predation that gains much of its power from the resonances across time.

 

There is no other work that is structured like this, there is no other work that so deftly combines elements of historical fiction and science fiction. Cloud Atlas is beautiful, absorbing and totally unique.

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Out of the fervent that was cyberpunk, two very distinctive voices emerged, each taking the sub-genre in different directions. William Gibson became increasingly concerned with how we shape the modern world around us; Bruce Sterling, on the other hand, wrote more and more about how the modern world shapes us. It was Sterling's branch of cyberpunk that led us to the post-human, an idea that he first began to express in his Mechanist/Shaper stories, of which Schismatrix is the climax.

In this future, humanity has spread to orbital colonies scattered across the solar system, leaving Earth behind and, indeed, having no further communication with the old planet-bound humans. But in the process of moving into space, they have changed in one of two ways. There are the Shapers who use genetic modification to change their bodies, and who believe a natural, unplanned birth is a disadvantage. Opposing them are the Mechanists who use computer and machine augmentations.

Through the character of renegade diplomat Abelard Lindsay, the novel serves as a tour of various Shaper and Mechanist colonies, exploring the different body forms that have been chosen, the various political systems that have been adopted, and the tensions between the different groups.

 

Schismatrix was one of the key cyberpunk novels, and an essential work in the development of posthuman fiction.

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One of the things that H.G. Wells did with The Time Machine was offer a panoramic vista of a vast sweep of time, taking us far forward to the very death throes of our planet. It's an epic scale that writers such as Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter have emulated. But there is no one who has written about inconceivable eons of time in quite the way Olaf Stapledon does in this novel.

Stapledon was a philosopher who followed the Hegelian conception of history, that there is a tension which causes civilisations to rise and fall and rise and fall. For every advance there's a decline, but the next advance will take us that little bit further forward.

Stapledon put this notion into this novel, which covers some two billion years, and several different forms of post-humanity.

The First Men are us, a society that sees a world state, the using up of all of our natural resources, and a nuclear holocaust that destroys all but a few survivors. These eventually become the Second Men, and then the Third, and so on. Humans change, grow taller or shorter, acquire extra fingers, larger brains. By the Fifth Men, it is an artificial species, one that goes on to terraform Venus when earth ceases to be habitable. The Seventh Men can fly, the Ninth Men emigrate to Neptune when Venus ceases to be habitable. The most advanced race of all are the Eighteenth Men, natural philosophers with several sub-genders, they do not die, but they do practice ritual cannibalism.

It's not an easy book to read; rarely does he pause long enough in his headlong race through the centuries to actually introduce any characters. But it is so jam packed with ideas that you cannot help but come away from the book feeling invigorated.

 

Arthur C. Clarke said of Last and First Men that "no other book had a greater influence on my life." And we can say that without Stapledon, science fiction would have been very different.

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Award Nominations:1992 NEBULA

Is this novel science fiction? Or is it fantasy, or a straight historical fiction? It could be any, depending on how you choose to read the famously enigmatic ending of the novel. But however you read it, it is a beautiful and fascinating work.

A white woman walks into a camp of Chinese workers in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. She doesn't speak, maybe she can't speak, but she does utter birdlike sounds that leads the Chinese labourers to christen her Sarah Canary. One of the Chinese tries to take care of her, which leads the two on an odyssey among the outcasts of American society at the time, encountering blacks, the insane, feminists and artists among others. At the end, Sarah is transformed into something indescribably and disappears. Was she an alien? Was she a figment of the imagination?

Silent to the end, however, Sarah's journey shines an extraordinary light into murky corners of American history, and gives a voice to those who were usually voiceless.

 

Sarah Canary is an emotionally powerful work, beautifully crafted, delicious to read, that makes us question our own notions of genre. It is undoubtedly science fiction, unless you decide otherwise.

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Award Nominations:1992 PKD

By the late 1980s, British science fiction was ready for the kick-start that would become the British renaissance. And that kick start came from two unexpected writers. One was Iain M. Banks, who had a reputation as an anarchic talent in mainstream fiction, but now burst out with a rip-roaring space opera. The other was Colin Greenland, who had written a handful of elegant if rather anaemic fantasies, but suddenly produced the wild, colourful space adventure of Take Back Plenty.

This was a novel that brought together some of the oldest, hoariest ideas in science fiction, and made them fresh. It was a planetary adventure that wasn't afraid of presenting Mars or Venus as frontier territory, rough and dangerous; there are tough spaceship captains forever in danger of losing their precious ship; and there are competing alien races who happen to control the solar system. All this feels like clich, but it is written with an exuberance that emphasises the devil-may-care fun of space opera.

And Greenland undermines enough of the clichs to make us sit up and take notice. Most notably, his rough, tough spaceship captain is a woman, Tabitha Jute, who is a lot less responsible than her intelligent ship, the Alice Liddell (named after the model for Alice in Wonderland, which illustrates something of what lies behind this story). She accepts a seemingly innocuous job, transporting a wheeler-dealer and his band from Mars to the alien space station of Plenty. But things rapidly become more complex, and once started the action barely lets up.

 

Take Back Plenty won the BSFA and the Arthur C. Clarke Awards. It's a knowing rehash of old sf tropes that makes space opera fun again, which is why this is one of the founding texts of both the British Renaissance and the New Space Opera.

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Award Nominations:1978 CAMPBELL

Despite the fact that science fiction in Russia has as long and impressive a history as it does in America or Britain, very little Russian sf has become known in the West, largely for political reasons. The work that has become known over here, therefore, is generally worth special attention, and that is certainly true of Roadside Picnic.

Aliens pay a fleeting visit to Earth, leaving in their wake mysterious detritus, whose function is unknown and unknowable. It could well be the sort of rubbish we leave behind if we stop for a picnic at the side of the road, and like such detritus it may be dangerous to those who happen upon it later. But it is still of interest to curious humans.

World governments try to enclose such picnic sites, or zones, but there are always stalkers who insist on entering the zones to scavenge for whatever they might find. One such stalker is Red, who, over the course of his career, sees a colleague killed and another disabled, has his young daughter turn into something inhuman, finds his father returning from the dead, and when, finally, he reaches the artefact that is supposed to grant any wish he realises that he no longer knows what to wish for.

 

Roadside Picnic was the basis for the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky which has been, if anything, even more influential than the novel. Nevertheless, this is a bleak but magnificent novel that demonstrates that science fiction really is a world literature.

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There was a time when stories of isolated communities surviving after the apocalypse were all over the place. There was also a time when stories of clones were everywhere, driven by the curious uncanny interest in what it might be like to meet yourself. But it took Kate Wilhelm, in what is easily her finest novel, to bring the two ideas together.

There is no one cataclysmic event that destroys the world, just a series of problems, viruses and wars and increasing levels of radiation, that slowly become insoluble. The Sumners, a wealthy extended family, decide to ride out the cataclysm in their remote farm, until they discover that one of the side effects of the various problems in the world is that they have all become infertile. In order for the family to survive, they decide to clone themselves, imagining it is a temporary measure and that some years down the line the clones will be able to breed naturally again.

But the clones have other ideas. They quite like being clones, and choose to continue cloning, creating anything from four to 10 offspring from each individual. The consequence of this is that the clones lose all sense of individuality, they become dependent on each other, tied together by an empathy that is almost telepathic. Eventually, they lose their creativity, their ability to cope with changing circumstances. Only an offshoot community that has restored natural childbirth and with it the sense of individuality continues to thrive.

 

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award. A humane, sensitive work, typical of Wilhelm at her very best, it is one of the most interesting treatments of cloning in science fiction. U. A humane, sensitive work, typical of Wilhelm at her very best, it is one of the most interesting treatments of cloning in science fiction.

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Award Nominations:1991 CLARKE

Sense of place is, to be honest, not particularly strong in a lot of science fiction. We get identikit urban futures, or rural redoubts that could be anywhere, or other worlds that can be described any way that the author finds convenient. But one of the particular enchantments of Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After, is the way San Francisco is a character in the story, its quirks and oddities lovingly described. And, of course, the whole story turns on the particular characteristics of San Francisco natives.

The story is set not long after the Plague, which has drastically reduced the population, terminally disrupted the governance of the United States, but has not overly inconvenienced the survivors in San Francisco. They seem to have plenty of food, grown locally and sold at markets around the city, and most of them seem to be using their post-apocalyptic leisure to become artists. In other words, San Francisco has reinvented itself as a sort of utopia.

But that sort of anarchistic life cannot be allowed to continue by those seeking to reimpose order. In particular, General Miles, who has decided that a military government is needed, that everyone must be made to work together to rebuild the country, and that dissent must be stamped out. The clash of worldviews is inevitable.

What makes this such a delightful novel is the way the artists of San Francisco are busy reimagining reality, and base their resistance upon this. Their opposition to the General has a surreal quality to it, works of art are ranged against armies. Might must win in the end, but before we get there some very interesting things are happening.

 

Underneath it all, The City, Not Long After is a very traditional, very familiar story: the threat of a military dictatorship being imposed in the wake of some disaster. But in the way it is told, in the way the characters respond to the disaster with art, and above all in the portrayal of San Francisco, the familiar is made new.

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Awards Won:2004 BSFA
Award Nominations:2005 HUGO, 2005 CLARKE

The future is here, William Gibson once said, it's just not evenly distributed. That unevenness of distribution is especially apparent in what we still call the Third World, those countries still scrambling to keep up with the effects of Western technological change while holding on to their distinctive character and traditions. It is that conflict that lies at the heart of Ian McDonald's monumental and brilliant novel.

It is set in India on the 100th anniversary of independence, but India is no longer a unified state, it has been balkanised into a number of competing states. Here AIs that might pass the Turing Test are banned, but some states are not above working with them covertly. Meanwhile severe water shortages threaten the stability of the various Indian states. Both basic needs and modern technological developments, therefore, play their part in the chaos that is starting to overwhelm the subcontinent.

Telling the story through a variety of different viewpoint characters ranging from a genderless "neut" who works on a popular soap opera, to a would-be stand up comedian who suddenly inherits control of a major energy company, McDonald provides a panoramic account of the many different cultural, social, political, technological and religious differences that all play a part in the brewing conflict.

In a collection of stories, CyberabadDays, that acts as a pendant to this novel, McDonald provides further perspectives, both before and after the events of River of Gods, that help to make this comprehensive portrait of near-future India even more convincing.

 

River of Gods won the BSFA Award, and "The Djinn's Wife" from Cyberabad Days won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Together the books provide a rich and vivid portrait which makes it clear that the future is not just limited to one portion of the globe. Hugo Award for Best Novelette. Together the books provide a rich and vivid portrait which makes it clear that the future is not just limited to one portion of the globe.

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Throughout its history, many of the finest and most important works of science fiction have been short stories. Magazines and anthologies have been the lifeblood of the genre for at least 90 years. Magazines like Amazing or Astounding or Asimov's, anthologies like Universe or New Dimensions or Orbit, all deserve a place in any top 100 of the genre. But of all the short story collections the one that surely can't be ignored is Harlan Ellison's groundbreakingDangerous Visions, along with its even more massive companion, Again, Dangerous Visions.

The 33 stories in Dangerous Visions won two Hugo Awards and two Nebula Awards; the 42 stories in Again, Dangerous Visionsadded another couple of Hugo and Nebula Awards. But the awards really don't tell the full story.

What you find here are writers as varied as Frederik Pohl, Robert Bloch, Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, Carol Emshwiller, Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Joanna Russ, Gene Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, Gregory Benford, Josephine Saxton, Thomas Disch, James Tiptree, Jr., and so on. It's a who's who of the very best science fiction writers, producing some of their very best work.

"Aye, And Gomorrah" by Samuel R. Delany, in which neutered spacers exploit their androgyny as a sexual fetish for others, is undoubtedly one of the finest stories he ever wrote. "The Word for World is Forest" by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which humans try to exploit the resources of an idyllic world uncaring of the harm it will do to the native inhabitants, is a glorious piece of work.

Because Ellison encouraged his contributors to break taboos, to try things that science fiction hadn't done before, it resulted in some of the most original, challenging and brilliant stories in the genre.

 

The two collections together were groundbreaking. Science fiction hadn't seen anything like them before, and hasn't seen anything like them since. The collection defined the American new wave, and changed the genre for a generation.

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The internet changed our lives in ways that, even now, we probably don't fully appreciate. But what is the effect of the internet? To what extent are we different from how we were before this instantaneous contact with the world?

In Air, Geoff Ryman takes us to a remote village in Central Asia, a village that is aware of the modern world but is not part of it and, so far as it is aware, has no need of it. Meanwhile, a new advance on the internet is being developed, something called "Air" that gives you a direct mental connection to the world.

By pure chance, Chung Mae, an illiterate peasant woman, gets Air downloaded into her brain before anyone else in the world. She is smart, running her own little fashion business which makes her the automatic repository of the hopes and worries if the other village women. Once she gets used to this strange thing that has happened to her, she sees how much it is going to affect life in the village. Slowly, she starts to prepare her fellow villagers for a transformation she sees as inevitable, but in the process unleashes social and personal troubles that affect her and everyone she has ever known. Air recounts the wrenching transformation of an ancient, ageless way of life into hyperfast modern connectivity. It is a painful, moving, and in the end beautiful account of the terrors of our fast-moving and uncaring world, and of what is lost in any abandonment of tradition.

 

Air won the Arthur C. Clarke, the BSFA and the James Tiptree Jr. Awards. It is a prime example of the movement Ryman himself has dubbed "mundane sf", fiction that focuses on the world around us and the everyday consequences of contemporary science and technology.

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In June 1968, the magazine Galaxy carried two advertisements on facing pages. The left-hand page declared support for the Vietnam War and was signed by 72 prominent sf authors and editors; the right-hand page opposed the war and was signed by 82 people. The war divided science fiction every bit as much as it divided American society as a whole. But although an occasional science fiction story was clearly influenced by the war (The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is the prime example), it would not be until Lucius Shepard started writing, getting on for 20 years later, that a body of work was produced directly addressing the traumas of Vietnam.

Of these, easily the best was the novel Life During Wartime. Here the setting has been transposed to Central America in the near future, but the intense heat of the jungle, the disorientation experienced by the soldiers, blatantly recalls Vietnam.

The American soldiers know nothing of why they are fighting or what the war is about; they know even less about the people whose lands they have invaded. Most of the soldiers, most of the time, are high on drugs which are not just freely available, they are actually distributed by the military. Meanwhile the elite forces, such as the helicopter pilots we meet on several occasions, are so engaged with their heads-up digital displays that they are completely dissociated from the real world around them. This is high-tech, very science fictional warfare.

Their opponents, however, are effectively magic realist; at one point an American pilot is killed when he is suffocated by hundreds of butterflies. The central character, David Mingolla, is an artillery specialist recruited into Psicorps, but when he meets and falls in love with the rebel Debora the two go AWOL, penetrating the Latin American jungle to discover that the whole war is actually a continuation of an ages-old rivalry between two Panamanian families, who have managed to manipulate the different armies to their will.

 

"R&R", the novella which became the starting point for the novel, won the Nebula Award. The novel, atmospheric with a vivid sense of how oppressive the jungle can feel, is surely one of the finest accounts of the experience of war that science fiction has produced.

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The grandfather paradox which states that if you go back in time and accidentally kill your grandfather you will never be born, so you cannot travel back in time to kill your grandfather, and on endlessly is the central problem of time travel stories. Some authors ignore it, some embrace it; but what if the purpose of time travel isn't to go back and change history, but rather to go back and put history right? That is the intriguing idea behind Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man.

In contemporary London, Karl Glogauer is a misfit, neurotic, homosexual, and with a messiah complex. Indeed, at one point in his childhood, he had himself crucified on the fence of the school playground. Unable to cope with modern life, he builds a time machine and travels back to meet the man he dreams of being.

But when he reaches 1st century Palestine, he discovers that the historic Jesus is a drooling idiot. But Glogauer is so committed to the idea of Jesus that he starts taking on the role, repeating the parables he can recall and using psychological tricks that pass for miracles. In the end, determined to see his impersonation through to the end, he even connives in his own betrayal and execution.

 

The original novella won a Nebula Award. There is a line in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Behold the Man is a powerful novel about preserving the legend in the face of the facts.

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Award Nominations:1961 HUGO

A massive alien structure is discovered on the moon. In order to explore it, volunteers are scanned in a matter transmitter on Earth and their doppelgangers are projected onto the moon while the original is able to experience everything that the doppelganger does. Unfortunately, the doppelganger is killed almost as soon as they enter the structure, and experiencing vicarious death is enough to send the volunteer mad.

Then an adventurer, Al Barker, comes forward. The doppelganger is killed, but Barker retains his sanity. He goes again, and gets a little further into the structure before being killed. Then a little further, and a little further. But the experience of dying, over and over again, has an effect.

Against this stark background, Budrys weaves a story of manipulation, sexual jealousy, a quest for thrills and a quest for power, all of which are reflected in the solitary experience of dying and dying and dying again for the sake of a few more feet inside a structure that remains enigmatic to the end.

 

Rogue Moon is one of those stories that stays with you. The repeated agony of death remains as a powerful image that you can never quite get out of your mind. It may not be a story that you re-read much, but it's a story that you'll always remember.

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What would you do if you could live your life over and over again? It may not be as idyllic an option as it sounds, as Claire North demonstrates in this gripping novel.

There are among us, there have always been among us, people who, when they die, are born again at the exact same time and in the exact same circumstances as their original birth. Because they carry memories from their previous lives, they are usually able to bet on winning horses and so give themselves a comfortable life. And after one or two lifetimes they also tend to discover others like them, the so called Cronos Club, who provide a support network. But other than that, there are those who seek religion and those who live lives of debauchery, and those who basically live fairly ordinary lives.

Then a message is passed back from the future, whispered by a child to a dying man, who in turn as a reborn child will whisper it at someone else's death bed: the end of the world is getting earlier. Thus Harry August discovers that there is someone who is trying to destroy the Cronos Club, and at the same time initiate so many technological developments that it changes the character of the world and accelerates the end of the world. The search, and the subsequent battle of wills with his opponent, takes several lifetimes.

 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a vivacious, endlessly inventive story that constantly makes us see our world afresh.

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If there is one overused clich in science fiction, it is the alternate history novel in which Hitler won the Second World War. But this is a novel about the Nazis triumphant that is not clichd for the very simple reason that it was written even before the war began.

Burdekin was an early feminist writer who saw fascism as an ideology that extolled the masculine, and following Hitler's proclamation of the "thousand-year Reich", she wrote the novel to show just how far such an ideology might go in a thousand years. The novel was published under the name Murray Constantine, a pseudonym designed to protect her family from the sort of attack her strong condemnation of fascism was likely to generate. It was 20 years after her death before it was discovered that Constantine was really Burdekin.

It is 700 years after the Nazis won the Twenty Year War, and Hitler is revered as a tall, blond god who personally won the war. The Jews have been eliminated long since, Christians are marginalised, and women have been deprived of all rights. The rise of a misogynistic society has led to the physical degeneration of women, and with that the race has declined, becoming ever weaker so that they are struggling to continue their perpetual wars against the only other superpower, Japan.

 

This is, quite simply, one of the finest works of science fiction from between the wars, a stirring, passionate denunciation of fascism at a time when appeasement was popular.

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Trilogies have more or less become the default form of science fiction these days. But even so, producing all three volumes of a trilogy in a year is not exactly a common occurrence. That, however, is what Jeff VanderMeer has done, and in doing so he has produced something genuinely spooky, intriguing, unexpected and oddly beautiful.

Area X is a part of Florida where something strange happened years ago. Since then, the area has been closed off under the oversight of the Southern Reach Authority. Every so often they will send a team in to investigate, but the teams don't always return, if they do return they're not always in their right minds, and if they do report it doesn't always make sense. So mostly the Area is left to return to what passes for nature here.

In the first volume, Annihilation, a team of four women is sent in. It is obvious from the start that something in the zone is affecting their perception, or at least their understanding of what they see. Because from the very first sentence we are seeing a tower that does not rise into the air but rather plunges into the ground. Later we will find a form of lichen on the walls of the tower that grows in such a way as to form cryptic messages.

The second volume, Authority, concentrates on the Southern Reach Authority itself, a bureaucracy made helpless by the fact that it has no control over Area X at all. The barrier that closes it off, the lone doorway into the zone, all were created by unknown forces, possibly aliens although no-one seems to want to acknowledge that possibility. And the helplessness of the bureaucracy leads to Byzantine infighting and lots of ineffectual spy business.

Finally, in Acceptance, the narrator of the first volume, presumed dead, reappears but insists on calling herself Ghost Bird, and we return to the zone itself to find a solution to some but by no means all of the mysteries.

 

Jeff VanderMeer is one of the leading exponents of what is called "New Weird", a hybrid form that combines elements of horror, fantasy and science fiction. If, in this trilogy, the science fiction seems to predominate, the whole trilogy is still inflected with a perfectly balanced sense of the strange and wonderful and disturbing. It's a work to savour, even if it is not a work to be fully understood.

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Is there anything new to be done with a post-apocalypse scenario? Well, read Station Eleven and find out.

In a performance of King Lear, one snowy night in Toronto, the leading actor, Arthur Leander, collapses and dies. A child actress, Kirsten, watches in horror as a trainee paramedic, Jeevan, tries and fails to save Arthur's life. Later, leaving the theatre, Jeevan hears about a virulent strain of flu and instead of going home heads for his brother's apartment where the two can barricade themselves in against the collapse of society.

This is the central point of the novel, the hinge around which everything turns. From here we go back in time to witness Arthur's career, and we leap forward in time to when Kirsten is a member of a troupe of players travelling between remote communities. There are many of the familiar devices of post-apocalyptic fiction here, the small-town dictators, the religious fanatics, the simple struggle to survive. But these are not the point of the book.

Rather, the importance lies in the links that Mandel draws out between the world before the collapse, and after. With a hand-drawn comic, "Station Eleven", providing the connection as it somehow survives the apocalypse.

 

Station Eleven has already made the shortlists for a variety of mainstream and science fiction awards, an indication of the quality of the book. From the very first sentence you will be captivated by the sheer beauty of the prose. It is, above all, just a marvellous book to read.

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"Space opera" was a disparaging term coined by Wilson Tucker for the sort of brash interstellar adventure that has been the staple of science fiction magazines before the Second World War. But the person who actually invented space opera is probably E.E. "Doc" Smith.

The first space opera was The Skylark of Space, in which an inventor, Seaton, discovers a workable space drive. His rival, DuQuesne, steals the drive, kidnaps Seaton's girlfriend, and heads out into space, hotly pursued by Seaton and his partner. They catch up with DuQuesne, rescue the girlfriend, then set off on a tour of exotic planets and meet strange aliens, before finally returning to Earth.

There were two further Skylark novels. Skylark Three has DuQuesneagain being the black-hearted villain who draws Seaton into a space war with a variety of aliens, only for Seaton to single-handedly conquer entire planets. Much the same happens in the third book, Skylark of Valeron. There was a fourth volume, Skylark DuQuesne, which was the last thing Smith wrote, some thirty years after the original trilogy, and in which DuQuesne reforms and joins Seaton in stopping an intergalactic genocide.

The stories are tosh, the writing is sloppy, and yet there is something joyous about their sheer love of scale. Don't read these as great literature, but if you're looking for something light and quick and fun, they could be just right.

 

The books may have been rubbish, but they were massively influential. A huge number of authors were inspired by Smith (most of them much better writers), and they made space opera one of the most important sub-genres of science fiction. A status they still enjoy today, though with the New Space Opera they form has improved markedly.

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