Science Fiction Classics
These are the authors from the mid-twentieth century who laid the foundation for the flowering of science fiction from the 1960s on. Many of the themes and techniques of the later sub-genres listed below were pioneered by these writers.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
A sweeping tale of the fall of a galaxy-wide empire, and one man’s plan to shorten the inevitable Dark Ages until the rise of a new civilization. The first of a trilogy, followed by other connected books, this set the standard for Space Opera with a feeling for history (later exemplified by the Dune books of Frank Herbert).
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (Starter)
Beautifully imagined and lyrically written, this series of sketches follows the decline of the original Martians and their replacement by human “Martians”. This classic set the stage for SF more concerned with atmosphere and social issues; it also has touches of several other sub-genres of SF. Several sections of this book have been much anthologized, for instance the nuclear-war short story “There Will Come Soft Rains”.
The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
Another classic with a sweeping sense of history, this is set in a distant future where humanity has gone to the stars, retreated back to Earth, and now lives only in the vast city Diaspar. While most inhabitants are afraid even to look beyond the city, which meets all their needs, the protagonist feels a need to explore. The book explores many issues relating to the limitation and regeneration of societies and individuals.
Warlock by Andre Norton
Norton was a pioneer in several ways: a woman writer when the field was still male-dominated, she also revived an earlier tradition of using fantasy elements in an SF mode. This title, a reprint of two separate novels, follows a human marooned on a planet who has to deal with two alien species, one totally hostile and the other neutral but wary.
Way Station by Clifford Simak
A Civil-War era farm becomes a “way station” for intergalactic travellers, with the farmer as its long-lived stationmaster. An early tale exploring alien-human differences, and stressing the need for tolerance. Like the following author, Simak is able to be sentimental and intellectually rigorous at the same time.
The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith (Starter)
Smith’s loosely connected short stories, many of them classics by themselves, are set in a future galactic society based on immortality treatments and genetic engineering. A recurring theme is the struggle for freedom of the Underpeople, a genetically engineered animal/human slave caste, thus invoking many human and civil rights issues. If you don’t want to read them all, at least try “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” – at which point, you may well read them all!
Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Like Andre Norton, Vance experimented with “Science Fantasy”, in these stories creating a far future where science is so advanced it might as well be magic. Vance’s Dying Earth books were the exemplar for an entire subgenre, whose greatest realization came in Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”, a quartet starting with Sword of the Torturer.
Films to watch:
Forbidden Planet (1956)
This classic film combined space adventure, alien technology, Freudian theory, and the plot of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in an unforgettable mix. On a lesser note, it also introduced Robbie the Robot.
War of the Worlds (1953 & 2005)
Both the old and the new versions are worth watching. The book, and the movies made from it, set the standard for the alien-invasion tale which has been mined so extensively.
Anatomy of Wonder: a critical guide to science fiction.
This is by far the best listing of SF books, not just classics but all periods & types. There are numerous sections and indices, and good annotations.
The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of by Thomas Disch
Disch, a great SF writer himself, offers his take on the history and importance of science fiction.