In 1932, English writer Aldous Huxley published "Brave New World" and foretold a future in which individualism is abhorred, the population is permanently limited and everyone is strung out on a hallucinogen known as soma. Many critics today describe this anti-utopian story as a science-fiction classic. But another 10 years or so would pass before mainstream publishers began embracing sci-fi as a genre. The years before, during and after World War II marked sci-fi's Golden Age and thrust a new generation of writers — Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke and many others — into the public consciousness.
We used that Golden Age as one of several criteria to decide whether a book made it on this list. Sci-fi books published before 1940 didn't make it; those books published after did. We also used the two major science fiction awards — the Hugo and Nebula — as measuring sticks. All our entries received one of the awards; many received both. Next, we organized our winners into five themes central to the genre (close to home, far, far away, alien invasions, near future, and man and machine). Finally, no author could make the list twice. Got that? Let's head to Mars.
10: Close to Home: 'Stranger in a Strange Land'
When H.G. Wells wrote of Martians coming to Earth in "The War of the Worlds," he made them malevolent warmongers. In "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961, Putnam), Robert Heinlein turned this idea on its head by making the Martian invader one of us. The book's central character is Valentine Michael Smith, a human born during the first manned mission to Mars. After being raised by Martians, Mike returns to Earth, where he experiences human culture as any alien would. But Mike isn't a passive observer. Under the watchful eye of his companions and protectors Jill Boardman and Jubal Harshaw, Mike founds the Church of All Worlds in an effort to help humans overcome their fears and jealousies.
"Stranger"became an international best-seller, proving to publishers that sci-fi could produce breakout hits. It also solidified Heinlein's stature as one of the founding fathers of the genre. He followed up his most famous book with two other now-classic sci-fi stories: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and "Time Enough for Love."
9: Close to Home: 'Red Mars'
In the 1980s and 1990s, after several unmanned missions revealed tantalizing clues about Earth's next-door neighbor, many sci-fi writers chose the colonization of Mars as their subject. No one did it better than Kim Stanley Robinson. His ambitious novel "Red Mars" (1992, HarperCollins) didn't seem like speculative fiction at all. It read like a how-to manual, except with riveting characters and a tense, engaging plot. The story focuses on the "first hundred" — the initial party of settlers who must carve out a life on Mars and begin the terraforming process that will pave the way for future settlers. As with any international endeavor of this magnitude, it doesn't take long for disagreements to arise. Some believe that the planet should be preserved. Others want to transform it into a second Earth, regardless of the costs.
Robinson's book won a Nebula Award in 1993, but what's more amazing, he followed it up with two sequels: "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars," both of which maintain the same high standards established by their predecessor. "Green Mars" won a Hugo Award in 1994.
8: Far, Far Away: 'Dune'
As soon as astronomers realized the immensity of the universe, with its billions and billions of far-flung galaxies, sci-fi writers began speculating about distant worlds located far beyond the limits of space and time. Few of these worlds have captured our imagination quite like Arrakis, the sand-covered planet featured in Frank Herbert's "Dune" (1965, Chilton). Arrakis is the sole source of melange, a spice drug that grants immortality to those who take it. It's also the stage for an epic power struggle between two ruling families — the Harkonnen Noble House and House Atreides — and the quest of the young Duke Paul Atreides to gain his rightful place on the throne.
"Dune," winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, is one of sci-fi's most beloved works and continues to intrigue readers nearly 50 years after its publication. Herbert followed up "Dune" with several sequels, starting with "Dune Messiah" in 1969, until his death in 1984. Today, Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson keep the "Dune" saga alive.
Read about a different kind of dune — sand dunes.
7: Far, Far Away: 'The Foundation Trilogy'
Isaac Asimov wrote prolifically for more than 40 years, producing a library of some 500 fiction and nonfiction books. In many ways, he served as a translator of difficult scientific concepts and theories to a whole generation of laypeople. The cornerstone of his vast bibliography, however, is a collection of three novels known today as the "Foundation Trilogy" or, more simply, "Foundation" (1951, 1952, 1953, Gnome Press and 1966 Hugo Award winner).
In these remarkable books — "Foundation," "Foundation and Empire," and "Second Foundation" — Earth is a long-forgotten footnote in history. Humans have spread throughout the galaxy, establishing an empire that has survived for thousands of years. But like many civilizations that have come before it, the Galactic Empire begins to collapse under the weight of corruption, bureaucracy and political infighting. One man, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, sets out to save mankind and preserve all knowledge in a vast encyclopedia. He gathers scientists and scholars and brings them to a planet that will serve as a steppingstone to a new era of humanity.
The first book of the trilogy tells how the Foundation was established and gained strength. The second book continues the story, describing how Seldon's experiment is nearly ruined by forces in the Galactic Empire that seek to destroy the fledgling Foundation. In the final book, rumors of a Second Foundation initiate a desperate search — by both good and evil — to find it. Taken together, the "Foundation Trilogy" stands as one of sci-fi's greatest achievements by one of its grand masters.
6: Alien Invasions: 'Rendezvous with Rama'
Aliens have taken many forms in sci-fi's long history. There are humanoids, amorphous blobs and insectile creatures with a taste for human flesh. In 1973, Arthur C. Clarke brought aliens to our solar system and never once showed us their face or features. The book was "Rendezvous with Rama," which sometimes gets lost in the shadow of "2001: A Space Odyssey," but really shouldn't. Published by Gollancz, it snagged a Nebula and a Hugo and wowed both critics and readers.
The story begins when an enormous, cylindrical object appears in our solar system. It's mistaken for an asteroid and dubbed Rama, but scientists quickly learn that it's not a piece of floating space rock, but an alien vessel. A team of astronauts treks out to Rama and explores its vast interior world. The only "life" they find are biological robots, or biots, which seem to be preparing the craft for some great mission. Unfortunately, that mission — and the alien genius behind it — remains a complete mystery.
More sequels about Rama followed, but none were written by Clarke, and none stand up to the original, which remains as one of the genre's post-Golden Age classics.
5: Alien Invasions: Ender's Game
While the aliens in "Rendezvous with Rama" appear benign, those in Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" (1985, Tor) live up to one of sci-fi's most enduring stereotypes: the bloodthirsty invaders hell-bent on destroying Earth. Card calls these aliens Buggers, and he begins his most famous novel after their attacks on Earth have nearly wiped out the human race. To ensure the survival of the species, international military forces search for child geniuses who can be shaped into the soldiers of the future. When they find these prodigies, they ship them off to Battle School, where the children learn how to fight in zero-gravity environments. One of these children, Ender Wiggins, is a genius among geniuses. Eventually, the military leaders take advantage of Ender's skill in the fight against the Buggers.
Card's novel works on many levels. The themes he explores — friendship, compassion, what it means to be human — appeal to readers of all ages. And the writing is simple, accessible and engaging, even when Card discusses complex concepts, such as zero-gravity battle tactics. For this reason, "Ender's Game" was a huge hit with young readers and adults. He didn't miss a beat in his follow-up book, "Speaker for the Dead." It won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1987, making Card the first author to win both awards twice (he also won for "Ender's Game").
4: Near Future: 'Doomsday Book'
In some ways, the far future is easier for sci-fi writers to create — it can be wildly speculative without causing disbelief. The near future is more challenging. Writers who set their stories just a few years or decades ahead of the present must remain true to current trends and events or risk raising suspicion and doubt in their readers. When an author, like Connie Willis, pulls it off, the rewards can be immense. In her near future, time travel is possible, and historians take advantage of the technology to visit and observe events of the past. Willis creates an elaborate set of rules that govern how time travel works, making it seem absolutely possible and plausible.
In 1992, Willis set "Doomsday Book" (Bantam Spectra), her fourth novel, in this near future. The main character is Kivrin Engle, a young student specializing in medieval history at the University of Oxford. She asks to be sent to 14th century England, just before the Black Death is about to ravage the country. Unfortunately, the technician operating the time machine is infected with a deadly influenza virus and, not thinking clearly, sends Kivrin to 1348 — 28 years later than her target date, which places her directly in the path of the Black Death. As a parallel epidemic sweeps through 21st century England, Kivrin must face the horror inflicted by one of the worst plagues in human history. "Doomsday Book" won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards.
3: Near Future: 'Fahrenheit 451'
Ray Bradbury has often described himself as a fantasist, not a sci-fi writer, but few readers would make the distinction, especially after getting their hands on "Fahrenheit 451" (1953, Ballantine), arguably one of the genre's most treasured novels. When the novel came out in 1953, several authors had already explored near-future dystopias, but there was a certain cleverness in Bradbury's vision that made his book stand out (and win the 1954 Retro Hugo Award). The cleverness begins with the title, which refers to the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites. Then there are the firemen, who don't put out fires, but start them in order to burn books. Finally, there are the typical Bradburian flourishes, such as TV walls, "Seashell Radio" sets and Mechanical Hounds.
This is the world in which fireman Guy Montag lives. It is a lonely, desolate existence where people pass one day after another, never reading, enjoying nature or thinking independently. Montag slowly becomes disillusioned and begins to question the meaning of his life. As he does, he discovers the value of literature and moves boldly to save himself — and great books — from his pursuers.
2: Man and Machine: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'
Philip K. Dick died in 1982 at the age of 54, which makes his substantial bibliography even more impressive. Although some of his books were written quickly and, arguably, sloppily, some are pure sci-fi genius. One of those is "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" a post-apocalyptic tale set in 1992, after World War Terminus and nuclear holocaust have decimated the globe. Many plant and animal species are extinct, and many of the surviving humans have abandoned their dying planet to live on Mars. These emigrants are allowed to own androids, which serve as slaves until they become discontented and flee to Earth. Unfortunately, escaping the Martian colonies is just the beginning of an android's troubles, for back on Earth, bounty hunters search for the robots and "retire" them. Rick Deckard is one of these bounty hunters, and the novel tells of his quest to find eight androids that have recently arrived in San Francisco after killing their human masters on Mars. In the process, he begins to question where the line between life and artificial life should be drawn, and why humans should have more rights than the near-humans they created.
The novel, published in 1968 by Doubleday, became the basis of Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner," which, in many respects, is more of a detective thriller than a sci-fi movie. Nevertheless, the film explored many of the themes that made the novel so powerful and, by achieving box-office success, reawakened interest in Philip K. Dick and his oeuvre. The film earned a 1983 Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation.
1: Man and Machine: 'Neuromancer'
The most famous and influential sci-fi novel of the 1980s, "Neuromancer" (1984, Ace) introduced readers to the online world of computer networks, what we now refer to as cyberspace. William Gibson's novel tells the story of Henry Dorsett Case, a hacker who uses his brain-computer interface to access the global computer network. Unfortunately for Case, his ability to establish a direct communication pathway to external devices is seared away when his employer discovers he has been stealing information. This leaves Case unemployable, and he wanders the bleak urban environment of Chiba City in search of a cure. Eventually, a mysterious ex-military officer promises to repair Case's nervous system, but only if the hacker becomes his employee. Case accepts and finds himself in the middle of the biggest —and most dangerous — hack of his life.
The impact of William Gibson's first novel can't be underestimated. Some critics suggest that the novel altered the trajectory of sci-fi literature, sending the genre in directions it might not have achieved without it. At the very least, "Neuromancer" helped to define the cyberpunk movement and introduced the lexicon of the Internet generation. And it won a Nebula and a Hugo as well.