I’ve long been a fan of classic science fiction novels. There’s something ineffable about a book that sticks with generation after generation of new readers. It’s the closest thing we have to time travel, and the stories that have aged well are worth remembering, and even revisiting from time to time.
This guest post from Emmanual Nataf, co-founder of author services marketplace Reedsy, reviews six of the most impactful science fiction novels of the 20th century from a 2019 point of view.
Bear with me for a moment and let your mind wander back to the start of science fiction. From there, you could say that the birth of this fine genre in the nineteenth century was anything but humble. Indeed, its founders read as a Who’s Who list of some of the greatest authors and books of all time: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Together, these literary giants started imagining the unimaginable: extraterrestrial beings, time travel, the unforeseen miracles of science, and more. Without them, the genre might not have even existed.
So where did science fiction go from these grand beginnings? It was up to the authors of the next century to really develop this burgeoning form. (No pressure!) The gauntlet was thrown — and picked up. Here are six of the most impactful science fiction books of the twentieth-century that resulted. We welcome discussion below in the comments!
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
I’m not saying that Isaac Asimov is the most influential science fiction author of the twentieth century — I’m just saying that there’s definitely a strong case for him. Out of the “Big Three” of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein, Asimov is perhaps the one who’s most widely known, even amongst the general public. And for good reason: most of his books rank among the greatest science fiction books ever. I, Robot revolutionized the way that we approached robots, and his works and short stories captured prophetic ideas in a way that forever lit people’s minds. (Though it’s worth noting that Asimov might have been a tad overly optimistic when he was asked in 1983 to predict the world in 2019.)
Foundation is Asimov’s most towering series: a sweeping story of galactic empires in the distant future. The sheer breadth of imagination on display is breathtaking — not to mention the social science that it intelligently dispenses. Put simply, it’s on this list because of the number of science fiction authors that it has gone on to inspire, George Lucas and Douglas Adams among them.
As Jonah Nolan, the writer behind Interstellar, said: “Foundation is a set of books where the influence they have is just fucking massive; they have many imitators and many have been inspired by them, but go back and read those, and there are some ideas in those that’ll set your fucking hair on fire.”
Fun fact: the Foundation series won the 1966 Hugo for best all-time series, beating another giant in speculative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings! Not bad at all — though, to be fair, Foundation is a whopping fifteen-volume series to Lord of the Ring’s mere three (or five if you count The Hobbit and The Silmarillion).
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein is one of the foremost names in the history of science fiction and Stranger in a Strange Land is perhaps his quintessential work. Ironically enough, Heinlein actually fought against labeling it a work of science fiction — he preferred to think of his magnum opus as a sociopolitical meditation on sex and religion. So he probably thought that it was a dubious honor, to say the least, when Stranger in a Strange Land became the first sci-fi book ever to break into the New York Times Best Sellers list.
However Stranger in a Strange Land is classified today (spoiler alert: it’s undoubtedly science fiction), it’s pretty clear that it had a massive influence on science fiction — and has reached much farther than anyone could have imagined when it was first published. A novel about a human born on Mars who comes to Earth as an adult, it quickly spread to the public at large, which is all the more impressive considering that science fiction was consumed by a very niche community of readers in the 1960s. Of course, part of this had to do with its fortuitous timing: as it was released into a decade during which counter-culture was raging and radical new ideas were being formulated, it’s no wonder that this daring novel spoke to a wide audience.
For lasting proof of Stranger in a Strange Land’s impact, just turn to the Library of Congress, which named Stranger in a Strange Land in its “Books That Shaped America” list in 2012. And, though I have yet to start using its glorious invention of “grok” yet in everyday conversation, one only needs to go to the Oxford English Dictionary itself to look it up today.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
The third of the “Big Three” science fiction authors in the 1900s, Arthur C. Clarke was a titanic visionary in the genre, pushing hard science fiction to new and greater heights. His intimidating imagination and prodigious worldbuilding inspired one person in particular: filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who wished to collaborate with Clarke. Kubrick wrote Clarke a letter in 1964, saying:
“It’s a very interesting coincidence that our mutual friend Caras mentioned you in a conversation we were having about a Questar telescope. I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie.”
The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke wrote the bestselling novel and the screenplay for the blockbuster film concurrently, so their collective impact is what I will credit here. And credit it I must: 2001: A Space Odyssey played nothing less than a pivotal role in making science fiction go mainstream in the mid-1950s. (And for a neat analysis of the music that made 2001: A Space Odyssey so epic, check out this post here.)
Admittedly, its timing once again helped. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon for the first time the year it was published, and the first-ever Moon landing came to successfully pass the next year. As a result, this work belongs to the pantheon of ground-shaking events that cemented space as the final frontier in the public’s mind.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Blade! Runner! Enough said, right?
Well, no. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? didn’t rest on its laurels after inspiring one of the greatest movies perhaps of all time. Instead, it went on to impact trillions of authors and an entire subgenre in literature.
Before I get ahead of myself, this book is worth a quick recap for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. Set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, it revolves around a bounty hunter called Rick Deckard (a great name in and of itself) who hunts and kills androids. Yet the deeper he goes into his work, the more he wonders exactly what separates the androids from himself. At its heart, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a moving and profound story asking what it actually means to be human.
Having brought Blade Runner into being, its impact on cinematic science fiction already cannot be overstated. But even beyond that, this novel would go on to cast a lofty shadow as far as the genre itself was concerned. While many at the time saw hard science fiction as a playground for the imagination, Dick was among the first to look at technology — and these wondrous possibilities of the future — and see the recipe for a dystopia. As you probably know, many authors have followed in his footsteps ever since. So it’s safe to say that, along with its radical depiction of machines, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? was one of the books of the twentieth century that helped define modern speculative fiction.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
What did the publication of Neuromancer in 1984 impact? Maybe the better question is: what didn’t it impact, in our Internet and technology-obsessed age?
Though Neuromancer is sometimes credited for creating the subgenre of cyberpunk, that’s not technically true: cyberpunk existed before Neuromancer. However, this seminal novel about a computer hacker in “The Matrix” did help define cyberpunk and become its enduring face — popularizing the subgenre and creating millions of fans all over the world. Not to mention that Gibson was the first person to coin the word “cyberspace” in Neuromancer. In other words, he imagined the internet before we had an internet — this all-powerful, momentous presence that dominates all of our lives today.
So Neuromancer shaped our entire vision of technology — and posited a digital future that is uncannily relevant today. In the afterword of Neuromancer, novelist Jack Womack goes so far as to ask: “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?” If that’s true, then we might even owe some part of the internet’s invention to Neuromancer. I’ll give the last word on Neuromancer to Scarlett Thomas, another award-winning science fiction author, who sums it up handsomely:
“There’s so much trivia about Neuromancer, and everything it inspired, from the name “Microsoft” to the Matrix films – perhaps even the whole Internet. But what I’ve always loved about Gibson are the same things I love about Jane Austen and Chekhov. Gibson uses small, precise details to build a world in which people are defined by their contemporary technologies, fashions and material culture.”
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Much of science fiction in the twentieth century was dominated by male novelists. Books published in the genre were written largely for (and by) white men. This was the inhospitable landscape that Ursula K. Le Guin entered in the 1960s when she began writing, publishing — and succeeding.
Le Guin could have changed the game for science fiction forever simply by being herself. But her brilliance, her imagination, and her sheer wisdom went much, much further than that. Modern science fiction and fantasy has her fingerprints upon it everywhere. As Petra Mayer at NPR Books said in an interview:
“Before she created Earthsea, wizards were old white men with long beards — Merlin and Gandalf. Kowal says Le Guin turned that image on its head, introducing characters like a young magician learning his craft and eventually women who weren’t just the wicked sorceresses of the past. So if you’re reading a book about, say, a boy at a magic school or a young woman who discovers she carries a long-lost talent for wizardry, you’re reading someone who owes something to Le Guin. And if you’re reading a short story collection that blurs the borders of the speculative and the real, you’re reading someone who owes something to Le Guin because she was one of the first writers to cross those borders, too.”
If you’d like an example of how she upended convention and laughed at the status quo in science fiction, just turn to Left Hand of Darkness, which tells us early on: “The king was pregnant.” For Winter, the planet on which the story is set, has a population that is neither really male nor female: rather, sexual roles are chosen. It was a show of gender fluidity that was so far ahead of its time that it opened eyes in an unprecedented manner. And it started important conversations in society.
Becky Chambers, bestselling author of the recently Hugo-nominated Wayfarers series, wrote in a Lithub article about Left Hand of Darkness that “its legacy is immeasurable.” Today, we can only guess at the number of stories and authors who could not have existed without Left Hand of Darkness’ existence.
What other classic science fiction novels made a big impact on you as a reader? Discussion thread in the comments below!
Emmanuel Nataf is a co-founder of Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Emmanuel dedicates most of his time to building Reedsy’s product and is interested in how technology can transform cultural industries.