A Biased History of Sci-Fi

I love science fiction, but I’m a terrible fan of it. I love spaceships and technology and new ideas and robots and aliens, but I could not save a conversation by talking with any kind of fluency about representations in books about any of them. I’ve always been better at being excited about science fiction than actually being, like into science fiction.

Always, until this past year. I don’t know how anyone else makes themselves more fun at parties, but my approach is a time-honored one: thorough research.

I don’t have time to just suddenly become fluent in science fiction. It is a big genre, containing multitudes. It explores many themes, and your representative piece of science fiction may or may not be an ept exploration of those themes. I didn’t want to just start reading science fiction. What if I started with a crappy book and turned myself off the genre? That would be unforgivable.

I wanted a more systematic approach. I wanted to know the highlights of the various movements in science fiction from someone who’s been there and compared books within the groups. I wanted that ultimate tool in becoming cool: an academic approach.

Fortunately, the internet has my back.

There’s a college professor named Gary K. Wolfe. He’s basically made a career out of reading and knowing about science fiction. He has won a couple of Hugo awards, for example, for producing stuff where he just talks about science fiction in a fun and academic way.

The Great Courses, therefore, made a clever choice by hiring Mr. Wolfe to do a series of lectures called How Great Science Fiction Works. It’s really good. I recommend it. Mr. Wolfe describes it as a course about the movements in science fiction, then says that, by a convenient ordering in the universe, that mostly ended up being a survey of science fiction’s history at the same time.

That was pretty much exactly what I wanted. I wanted a systematic, academic approach to gaining a conversational fluency in science fiction. Because I want to be cool.

The course is good. Mr. Wolfe made a lot of reading recommendations throughout it.

And here is that reading list. It is, in a sense, a (Biased) History of Science Fiction by Way of a Reading List.

It is super bloody long! And definitely biased. I showed it to some writer friends, and they questioned some of Mr. Wolfe’s omissions and inclusions.

It’s biased. But it ain’t bad.

I’d sort of like to start a reading group to work on it with me. Any youse guys interested in reading along?

Here’s a link to the spreadsheet version, in case you’d like to check your own progress with it.

Author Title Year Movement
More, Thomas Utopia 1516 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus 1815 Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction
Verne, Jules From the Earth to the Moon 1865 Science Fiction and the 19th Century, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Twain, Mark Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a 1889 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Wells, H.G. Time Machine, the 1895 Science Fiction and the 19th Century, Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Wells, H.G. War of the Worlds, the 1897 Science Fiction and the 19th Century, Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Burroughs, Edgar Rice Princess of Mars, A 1912 Rise of Science Fiction Pulps
London, Jack Scarlet Plague, the 1912 Science Fiction Wasteland
Zamyatin, Yevgeny We 1920 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Čapek, Karel R.U.R. 1921 Robot: From Capek to Asimov
Stapledon, Olaf Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future 1930 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Stapledon, Olaf Star Maker 1937 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
van Vogt, A.E. Slan 1940 Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories
Heinlein, Robert A. Orphans of the Sky 1941 Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Smith, Edward. E. Skylark of Space, the 1946 Rise of Science Fiction Pulps
Orwell, George Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Stewart, George R. Earth Abides 1949 Science Fiction Wasteland
Asimov, Isaac I, Robot 1950 Robot: From Capek to Asimov
Blish, James Cities in Flight 1950 Science Fiction Treatments of History, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Bradbury, Ray Martian Chronicles, the 1950 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Asimov, Isaac Foundation 1951 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Heinlein, Robert A. Universe 1951 Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Asimov, Isaac Foundation and Empire 1952 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Asimov, Isaac Second Foundation 1953 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Bradbury, Ray Fahrenheit 451 1953 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End 1953 Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
Kornbluth, Cyril M.; Pohl, Frederik Space Merchants, the 1953 Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
Blish, James Earthman, Come Home 1955
Finney, Jack Body Snatchers, the 1955 Encounters with the Alien Other
Bester, Alfred Stars My Destination, the 1956 Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel
Blish, James They Shall Have Stars 1956
Clarke, Arthur C. City and the Stars, the 1956 Science Fiction’s Urban Landscapes
Blish, James Case of Conscience, a 1958 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Blish, James Triumph of Time, the/Clash of Cymbals, a 1959
Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers 1959 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Keyes, Daniel Flowers for Algernon 1959 Future of Science Fiction
Miller, Walter M. Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1959 Science Fiction Wasteland
Budrys, Algis Rogue Moon 1960 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Ballard, J.G. Wind from Nowhere, the 1961 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land 1961 Religion in Science Fiction
Lem, Stanislaw Solaris, 2011, Johnston 1961 Encounters with the Alien Other
Ballard, J.G. Drowned World, the 1962 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Blish, James Life for the Stars, a 1962
Delaney, Samuel R. Jewels of Aptor, the 1962 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Dick, Philip K. Man in the High Castle, the 1962 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Ballard, J.G. Burning World, the 1964 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Herbert, Frank Dune 1965 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Herbert, Frank Destination: Void 1965 Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Ballard, J.G. Crystal World, the 1966 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Clarke, I.F. Voices Prophesying War 1966 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Delaney, Samuel R. Einstein Intersection, the 1967 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Delaney, Samuel R. Nova 1968 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Herbert, Frank Dune Messiah 1969 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Le Guin, Ursula K. Left Hand of Darkness, the 1969 Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
Russ, Joanna Female Man, the 1970 Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
Silverberg, Robert World Inside, the 1971 Science Fiction’s Urban Landscapes
Strugatsky, Arkady; Strugatsky, Boris Roadside Picnic (2012, Olena Bormeshenko) 1971 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Brunner, John Sheep Look Up, the 1972 Environmentalism in Science Fiction
Le Guin, Ursula K. Word for World is Forest, the 1972 Environmentalism in Science Fiction
Ballard, J.G. Crash 1973 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous with Rama 1973 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Le Guin, Ursula K. Ones Who Walk away from Omelas, the 1973 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Ballard, J.G. Concrete Island 1974 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Charnas, Suzy McKee Walk to End of World 1974 Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
Haldeman, Joe Forever War, the 1974 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Harrison, M. John Centauri Device, the 1974 1990s: The New Space Opera
Niven, Larry; Pournelle, Jerry Mote in God’s Eye, the 1974 Encounters with the Alien Other
Ballard, J.G. High-Rise 1975
Butler, Octavia Patternmaster 1976 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Herbert, Frank Children of Dune 1976 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Benford, Gregory In the Ocean of Night 1977 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Cherryh, C.J. Serpant’s Reach 1980
Sterling, Bruce Artificial Kid, the 1980 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Wolfe, Gene Shadow of the Torturer, the 1980 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Cherryh, C.J. Downbelow Station 1981 1990s: The New Space Opera
Herbert, Frank God Emperor of Dune 1981 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Wolfe, Gene Claw of the Coniliator, the 1981 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Cherryh, C.J. Merchanter’s Luck 1982 1990s: The New Space Opera
Wolfe, Gene Sword of the Lictor, the 1982 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Cherryh, C.J. Forty Thousand in Gehenna 1983 1990s: The New Space Opera
Greenland, Colin Entropy Exhibition, the 1983 Science Fiction’s New Wave
Wolfe, Gene Citadel of the Autarch, the 1983 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Benford, Gregory Across the Sea of Suns 1984 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Gibson, William Neuromancer 1984 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Herbert, Frank Heretics of Dune 1984 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Atwood, Margaret Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares, Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
Herbert, Frank Chapterhouse: Dune 1985 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Sagan, Karl Contact 1985
Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas 1987 1990s: The New Space Opera
Bear, Greg Forge of God, the 1987 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Franklin, H. Bruce War Stars 1988 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Sterling, Bruce Islands in the Net 1988 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Banks, Iain M. Use of Weapons 1990 1990s: The New Space Opera
Cherryh, C.J. Rimrunners 1990 1990s: The New Space Opera
Tiptree Jr., James Her Smoke Rose Up Forever 1990 Encounters with the Alien Other, Gender Questions and Feminist Science Fiction
Banks, Iain M. State of the Art, the 1991 1990s: The New Space Opera
Baxter, Stephen Raft 1991
Fowler, Karen Joy Sarah Canary 1991 Encounters with the Alien Other
Robinson, Kim Stanley Red Mars 1992 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Stephenson, Neal Snow Crash 1992 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Willis, Connie Doomsday Book 1992 Science Fiction Treatments of History
Bear, Greg Anvil of Stars 1993 Invasions, Space Wars, and Xenocide
Butler, Octavia Parable of the Sower 1993 Religion in Science Fiction
Robinson, Kim Stanley Green Mars 1993 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Baxter, Stephen Ring 1994 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Benford, Gregory Furious Gulf 1994 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Lethem, Jonathan Gun, with Occasional Music 1994 Future of Science Fiction
Sullivan, Tricia Lethe 1994 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Bujold, Lois McMaster Cordelia’s Honor 1996
Hamilton, Peter F. Reality Dysfunction, the, Part 1: 1996 1990s: The New Space Opera
Hamilton, Peter F. Reality Dysfunction, the, Part 2: Expansion 1996 1990s: The New Space Opera
Robinson, Kim Stanley Blue Mars 1996 From Mars to Arrakis: The Planet
Russel, Mary Doria Sparrow, the 1996 Religion in Science Fiction
Sterling, Bruce Holy Fire 1996 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Butler, Octavia Parable of the Talents 1998 Religion in Science Fiction
Hopkinson, Nalo Brown Girl in the Ring 1998 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Hopkinson, Nalo Midnight Robber 2000 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Reed, Robert Marrow 2000 Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Reynolds, Alastair Revelation Space 2000 1990s: The New Space Opera
Sterling, Bruce Zeitgeist 2000 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
MacLeod, Ken Fall Revolution, the 2001 1990s: The New Space Opera
Baxter, Stephen Evolution 2002 Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Harrison, M. John Light 2002 1990s: The New Space Opera
Reynolds, Alastair Redemption Ark 2002
MacLeod, Ken Newton’s Wake: A Space Opera 2004 1990s: The New Space Opera
Robinson, Kim Stanley Forty Signs of Rain 2004 Environmentalism in Science Fiction
Okorafor, Nnedi Zahrah the Windseeker 2005 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Stross, Charles Accelerando 2005 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Wilson, Robert Charles Spin 2005 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Harrison, M. John Nova Swing 2006 1990s: The New Space Opera
McCarthy, Cormac Road, the 2006 Science Fiction Wasteland
Vinge, Vernor Rainbows End 2006 Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Okorafor, Nnedi Shadow Speaker, the 2007 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Wilson, Robert Charles Axis 2007 Artifact as a Science Fiction Icon
Okorafor, Nnedi Who Fears Death 2010 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Tidhar, Lavie Osama 2011 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Harrison, M. John Empty Space 2012 1990s: The New Space Opera
Tidhar, Lavie Bookman Histories, the 2012 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Hopkinson, Nalo Sister Mine 2013 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Mandel, Emily St. John Station Eleven 2014 Future of Science Fiction
Okorafor, Nnedi Lagoon 2014 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Scalzi, John Lock In 2014 Robot: from Capek to Asimov
Bacigalupi, Paolo Water Knife, the 2015 Environmentalism in Science Fiction
Okorafor, Nnedi Book of the Phoenix, the 2015 Science Fiction in the 21st Century
Robinson, Kim Stanley Aurora 2015 Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon
Stephenson, Neal Seveneves 2015 Science Fiction Wasteland
Baxter, Stephen Xeelee Chronicles
Benford, Gregory Galactic Center series Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction
Bujold, Lois McMaster any
Cherryh, C.J. Alliance-Union 1990s: The New Space Opera
Egan, Greg any Cyberpunk and the 1980s
Wolfe, Gene Book of the New Sun, the Evolution and Deep Time in Science Fiction, Spaceship as a Science Fiction Icon

4 thoughts on “A Biased History of Sci-Fi”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Oliver. I thought I was well-read, but have only ticked off 28 from this list – 29 if you count downloading (but not starting) Down Below Station. In the “cool” department, read Accelerando if you haven’t already. For a lighter introduction to Stross, I suggest the novelette Missile Gap. Very nice to see Gun With Occasional Music on this list, which I read only last month – a hardboiled noir tongue-in-cheek futuristic whodunnit. Motherless Brooklyn, also by Lethem, is also outstanding (but not SF). As for Iain Banks, I have only read his debut novel, The Wasp Factory, also not SF. Ballard has been on my list for a while.

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