Published on July 16th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
Five Classic Science Fiction Novels
We dig into some of the best-loved science fiction novels of all time to give you recommendations and see if their classic status is warranted.
There was a time in University and beyond when I went out of my way to read as many of the classic, ‘important’ pieces of literature that I could. At first, it was because I had to for school, though it soon became an obsessive need to check books off a list in my head. More recently, I was bored with a lot of the contemporary fiction I’d been reading (and one can’t survive on music and film bios and design textbooks alone). I decided I’d like to spend some time reading something that was smart, but also still fun. Pulpy, but with brilliant ideas. I came quickly to the notion of science fiction.
I realized that while I’ve read a lot of science fiction, I had never actually sat down and looked at what some of the best books in the genre were. Books that internet lists hail as classics and masterpieces, winners of Nebula or Hugo Awards. And I really love science fiction, both in literature, and in film, so I resolved to start working my way through some of these lists.
I found a great list from my favourite New York store, Forbidden Planet, called The 50 SF Books You MUST Read. I looked at many lists and didn’t connect with them, but when I saw that Dune was the #1 on the Forbidden Planet list, I knew I’d found the right curators. I didn’t take all of them in order, but chose the ones that seemed of interest to me personally.
Lastly, I don’t want to go too in depth, because there’s not much I can say about these books that hasn’t been said before. I just want to give you some titles and my impressions of them, so you can decide for yourself whether you want to read them. So, without further adieu, I bring you The Feedback Society’s Best Books: Sci-Fi: Volume I.
Let’s start with Dune, because it’s going to be my first serious recommendation to anyone that wants to take sci-fi seriously. This wasn’t a new read to me; I’ve read it dozens of times. But I wanted to throw it in here anyway because it’s one of my favourite books, regardless of genre. There’s even a David Lynch movie version I love (but can’t recommend to people). It’s a complex tale that deals with themes like family, generations, love, war, agriculture, and godhood. Pretty heady stuff.
The Dispossesed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Dispossessed is from Ursula K. LeGuin, who is probably one of the best prose writers in all of science fiction, or beyond. I had already read her books The Left Hand of Darkness and Lathe of Heaven (which has a really trippy central idea; that each time the main character dreams, he rebuild reality in the image of that dream). Anyway, The Dispossessed is about two worlds that evolved in each other’s shadows, but cut off from each other. A scientist from the more primitive world is sent to the more ‘civilized’ world to teach and learn from them. But of course, the more civilized world isn’t necessarily the most civil, and one can’t help but draw parallels to America and other similar societies. Which of course, is one of the best things science fiction does — lets us see our own world through a different prism. The Dispossessed was brilliant, full of wonderful prose and ideas. It was a little dry here and there, but ultimately worth the trade off to read LeGuin’s beautiful writing.
The Forever War (1974)
This one was hella fun; less refined than The Dispossessed, but a bit more swashbuckling and fast and loose with the ideas. It falls under the category of military sci-fi, like Starship Troopers, but it’s also more than that. Earth is at war with an alien race that’s so far away that you need to travel lightspeed to get to the fight. Of course, with time dilation, you leave to fight and if you make it back, a few hundred years might have passed in the 6 months you’ve been gone.
This not only makes the war interesting — because with all that time confusion, you might come upon an enemy that’s quite advanced and can wipe you out easily, or one that started out so long ago that they’re easily conquered. A couple of our heroes also make it back to Earth for awhile, in what would be their distant future, to a world that they no longer recognize (though, we might, sci-fi again being a vehicle that explores the present by speculating about the future). The Forever War explores its premise well, and uses it to look at different facets of society and humanity. It was also a comment on the Vietnam War, where Haldeman had seen action. This was probably one of the best, or at least, most enjoyable books that I read for this endeavor.
The Demolished Man (1953)
Most people would probably compare the central idea of this book to Minority Report, but there’s a lot of difference in the telling. It’s meant to be a bit of a hardboiled detective story, I think. It’s the tale of one of the universe’s richest man who decides to commit murder in a world where telepaths have all but ended that kind of crime. There are some neat ideas, including the way Bester plays with words and structures on the page, trying to show how telepathy reads. It probably gets a bit more mystical than it needs to in places and perhaps has some plot issues. In fact, even the heroes were pretty unsympathetic and didn’t have a lot of dimension to them. I didn’t mind the book, but it was probably the only one on the list that I had to trudge through at times. I’ve heard that Bester’s book The Stars My Destination is better, so I might give that one a go.
Like The Forever War, Gateway had a really fun premise; in the future, we find a space station of sorts, left behind by an alien race called the Heechee, who left it behind several millennia ago. They left behind ships that we can’t understand, but we can use. They travel to unknown destinations in the stars, and then come back again. A ubiquitous ‘Company’ controls all of this, and pays people to take their chances in the ships. You might find riches or artifacts the company will pay for, and find a golden ticket to living large on an Earth that is mostly scorched. Or you might find the horrors of space on the other end. Sometimes, to paraphrase Star Trek: The Motion Picture, “what we got back, didn’t live long.”
This book was as entertaining as it was frustrating. It had some great ideas, and even builds a very interesting world in the space station, again, playing with how information is presented on the page. You see reports, science lessons, and want ads that flesh things out well. Pohl does a great job of building tension, until he overdoes it — there came a point in the book where I was like, “just get in the ship already.” The story stalls when the characters don’t want to leave the station out of fear (though the psychology of this is warranted, it just drags a bit). However, once they get out there, and story plants start paying off as we reach the end, it found its rhythm. I think the good in Gateway outweighs the bad by a long shot.
All in all, there were some great reads here (with some awesome retro book covers), and it’s interesting to see what caught on with readers back then and whether it holds up now. I will definitely be reading a few sequels and other novels by some of these writers, as well as exploring more stories on the Forbidden Planet list.