The American SF "Canon"
March 23, 2014 6:53 AM   Subscribe

For an upcoming project I'm putting together what's meant to be a comprehensive timeline of important (even "necessary") works of American science fiction since the late 19th century.

For the purposes of the list, science fiction is somewhat broadly defined, including some speculative fantasy or horror, as well as "mainstream"/"canonical" works with SF elements like Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest or Slaughterhouse-Five. It will also include comics, film and television, video games, and related media, though perhaps at a somewhat less comprehensive level than it will prose literature.

This is my subject area, so you can assume I'm going to hit the best-known works in the genre; I also just don't have the space to include genuinely obscure works. So I'm looking for personal and sentimental favorites in the middle range -- works you worry I might overlook, but hope I wouldn't.

posted by gerryblog to Media & Arts (65 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One person's "Obvious" is another's "What?" so apologies if some of these are in the former category for you.

Contact (The film, in particular)
The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
Homestuck, by Andrew Hussie (ongoing)
Minority Report (The film)
Lilo and Stitch
Treasure Planet

These are almost definitely obvious, but the Portal and Mass Effect series of games.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:08 AM on March 23, 2014

A college course used this anthology. It had a lot of stuff I'd never seen before, like space opera stuff that I don't know if I would have encountered elsewhere.

Margaret Attwood's latest work (a trilogy starting with Oryx and Crake) is quite good, and her earlier The Handmaid's Tale lives at the intersection of speculative fiction and modern feminist literature. (Right, she's Canadian, but I'd think North American fits with American just fine).

Connie Willis is probably already on your list. Passage and her time travel stuff (To Say Nothing of the Dog, etc) are great.
posted by colin_l at 7:09 AM on March 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much Narrative Priorities! Maybe I can give some guidance of where I'm at, based on your list:

Mars trilogy

Portal, Mass Effect (probably both will make it, honestly)
Minority Report (film) (really not sure)


Lilo and Stitch

Treasure Planet (possibly Homestuck and Lilo and Stitch too, though I like the ideas, especially Lilo & Stitch)
posted by gerryblog at 7:12 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: I'd take a look at Ward Shelley's Timeline of Science Fiction image for works you may have overlooked.
posted by justkevin at 7:15 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: That's on my wall, but I never thought to *look* at it! Great idea, thanks justkevin.
posted by gerryblog at 7:16 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Walter Tevis' Mockingbird and The Man Who Fell To Earth.
James H. Schmitz' The Witches of Karres.
posted by nicwolff at 7:16 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Obscure-but-important in the 'game' area is Cloudmakers, aka The Beast. It was the first breakout 'alternate reality game' and there's a strong case to be made that it not only spawned the ARG genre but really accelerated 'gamification' and transmedia narratives, which have been wildly influential in the shape of science fiction television, film, and gaming today.
posted by peripatetron errant at 7:20 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow is an amazing and oft-overlooked work.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:27 AM on March 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: (Also, I think history is going to bear out Narrative Priorities' suggestion of Homestuck.)

It's definitely growing on me (and I buy the argument on The Beast, too). I'll include Dungeons & Dragons, I think, and see if my editor pulls it. And Time for the Stars is a perfect example of the sort of "wait, include this!" middle-range work I'm asking you all to mind-read and name...

Please keep them coming! This is very helpful.
posted by gerryblog at 7:36 AM on March 23, 2014

David Brin's first Uplift trilogy (Sundiver, Startide Rising, The Uplift War), Greg Bear's 'Blood Music' and 'The Way' trilogy (Eon, Eternity, Legacy) and Gregory Benford's Timescape are all excellent SF novels from the 80's.
posted by h00py at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Oh, and Gregory Benford and David Brin's collaborative novel, 'Heart of the Comet' is pretty damn good too (again, 80's).

'All My Sins Remembered' by Joe Haldeman

'The World For World is Forest' by Ursula Le Guin

'The Pollinators of Eden' by John Boyd

The short story collection 'The Same To You, Doubled' by Robert Sheckley
posted by h00py at 8:00 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: So I'm looking for personal and sentimental favorites in the middle range -- works you worry I might overlook, but hope I wouldn't

With that in mind, I'd like to make a plea for The Pushcart War and Cold Comfort Farm - both works that I think people forget are science fiction because they were written long ago and set in non-futuristic settings. But I think they're important since the moment when you realize "Hang on - when was this written? Was there an alternate 1965?" or "wait - are they talking on a videophone?" and the floor drops out from under you is just beyond awesome.

Also would love to see Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series (The Eyre Affair and its sequels) included.

(Also seconding The Handmaid's Tale but I am assuming that one counts as obvious)
posted by Mchelly at 8:00 AM on March 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: (Also seconding The Handmaid's Tale but I am assuming that one counts as obvious)

It's also Canadian, which I haven't decided how to handle yet...
posted by gerryblog at 8:02 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Robot and Frank (movie)
Fifth Element (movie)
Daily Science Fiction vol 1 & 2 (anthology)
Voyagers (TV series)
Probe (TV series)
Star Trek (Orig series)
Lost in Space (TV series)
Land of the lost (TV series)
This place has no atmosphere (YA Novel)
Escape Plus (ya novella / collection)
Another Fine Myth (Novell, series launch)
The Technicolor Time Machine/Make Room Make room (novel, novel/movie)
Trade wars (bbs video game)
A Mind Forever Voyaging (text adventure game)
Space Invaders/Asteroids/Galaga (arcade, home editions)
Farenheight 451 (novel)
Dr Who (mostly TV, Some fan fic)
The lion, the witch, & the wardrobe (novel)
Mars trilogy by Varley (novels)
I liked the original & redo of Fuzzy (Piper & mefi's own Scalzi)
posted by tilde at 8:13 AM on March 23, 2014

Urgh. Fifth element & dr who are from Europe, sorry.
posted by tilde at 8:14 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: 'The Songs of Distant Earth' by Arthur C. Clarke is a most underrated but excellent novel.
posted by h00py at 8:21 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Alfred Bester's novels The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, the latter of which definitely influenced and was referenced in Babylon 5, not least by the Psi-Cop who bears the authors name.

They're also just great, classic books.

I'd also like to nominate Anathem for a recent SF book by Neal Stephenson that does a lot more than it says on the tin.
posted by Muttoneer at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The father of space opera, E.E. Smith; Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, etc. Still a great read and the prototype for much modern sf.

A.E. van Vogt's Slan was one of the early superhuman novels. People love or hate his writing style, but he was influential.
posted by blob at 9:00 AM on March 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dune, by Frank Herbert. I'd nominate the whole six book series written by him, but the first novel spawned several film and TV adaptations, and was very much a part of West Coast 60s/70s Whole Earth culture. Very representatitive of a certain strain in Sci Fi thought to do with systems analysis, drug culture, evolution, power and politics, economic issues, and time. I would also put Herbert's The Dosadi Effect on the list if it gets into extended important works.
posted by fatbird at 9:14 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Three personal faves are must-includes that are often not included in lists like this:

Joanna Russ' The Female Man, a brilliantly experimental feminist scifi work that caused an uproar in the male-dominated world of scifi magazines and conventions when it appeared in 1975 (5 years after she wrote it, actually). I've called it "a brilliant work of feminist fiction, an angry, sad and clear-eyed look at various experiences of woman-ness in an experimental sci-fi setting" and "a savage exploding bomb in the scifi world in the early 70s, polarizing critics and fans, and is a brilliant, funny, exasperating howl of a book about gender, sexuality and alternate worlds" here in the past, and I'll stand by those. posted a great look back at the book's reception a couple of years ago that gives a sense of how disruptive and groundbreaking it truly was.

James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon's classic feminist stories that knocked 70s SF fans upside the head are also essential. I'll repeat myself from last year:

As far as classics go, a thousand nths for James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon's story collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. There's no way you can have a full understanding of scifi history without knowing classic stories like "The Women Men Don't See" and "Houston, Houston Do You Read?" For an extra bonus, get the earlier collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise, which includes some of the same stories along with Robert Silverberg's now-hilarious introduction in which he 1) claims the writing is "ineluctably masculine" and 2) calls "absurd" the suggestions that Tiptree is actually a woman. It also includes Silverberg's gracious postscript from three years later, thanking Alice for teaching him an important lesson: "She fooled me beautifully, along with everyone else, and called into question the entire notion of what is 'masculine' or 'feminine' in fiction."

Octavia Butler's poverty-ridden, low-tech Parable of the Sower is the best near-future dystopia book I've read, deeply human, hopeful and horrifying in equal measure.
posted by mediareport at 9:17 AM on March 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Movie, book and Buckaroo Banzai comic books. I can't link right now but there are a couple of interesting recent articles since it is the 30th anniversary of the film's release.
posted by rekrap at 9:19 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: mediareport, I'm marking that as best answer even though my personal list practically begins with those three writers. Different project, but I'm writing a book on Butler now...
posted by gerryblog at 9:21 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: It will be easy to miss some of the early greats like Erik Frank Russell and Clifford Simak, but somehow the pulp era has to be represented.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:33 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Also, you may have it, but what about the Perelandria novels by CS Lewis?
posted by Muttoneer at 9:44 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Make sure you include the early weird fiction of Lovecraft, Howard and contemporaries.
posted by Canageek at 9:58 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Came in to suggest Butler, but I see she's been covered--woo! So a plea for the soft SF and YA ladies: McCaffery, Cherryh, Bujold; Collins, Roth, Revis.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

A request that people explain why they're suggesting the suggestions they're suggesting.
posted by mediareport at 10:34 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: I think lower-budget 70s sci-fi films should be represented, like Soylent Green or Rollerball. They tend to deal with themes of overpopulation and resource scarcity and have a particular kind of 1970s interior design.

Also, Hackers, Sneakers, Swordfish, War Games, or one of the other 80s/90s Hollywood Hacker movies.
posted by vogon_poet at 10:37 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: I am not seeing any post-apocalyptic stories, so here's another branch of the canon:
Terminator 1 & 2
Mad Max/The Road Warrior (Australian, but their influence is undeniable)
The Fallout series of games (including Wasteland)
Logan's Run
A Boy and His Dog (film or book)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (questionable where it falls excactly, but I'd put it on the cusp of cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic, while Blade Runner is definitely purely cyberpunk)
The Day After (and once again reaching across the pond, Threads)
Planet of the Apes

Questionable entries into this are the pen and paper role-playing games Paranoia, Twilight 2000 and Gamma World.

Someone else should write up the cyberpunk list, as all I can think of as essentials are Neuromancer (and its subsequent trilogy) and Snowcrash
posted by Hactar at 10:38 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Does Riddley Walker count as American? Hoban was an American author and I'm pretty convinced it's the best book ever written.

A couple other semi-canonical: Herland, Woman on the Edge of Time, The Lottery.
posted by latkes at 10:43 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, Simak's City should be included.

In the middle range for movies, have you included Screamers, and in TV Odyssey 5.

Also, are you including the more A end of YA, Nancy Farmer (The House of the Scorpion) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl) have done some interesting recent stuff that I think may stick around.
posted by gudrun at 10:52 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: "Sidewise in Time", a 1934 short story by Murray Leinster, is claimed to be the first appearance of parallel timelines in the SF genre. It's the namesake of the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History.
posted by XMLicious at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2014

Response by poster: It's funny because from my perspective as an academic many of the female and nonwhite authors being described as "semi-canonical" ARE the "canon." I'm actually much lighter on some of the big Golden Age names who have since fallen out of favor....

Continuing to thank everyone. This has been great.
posted by gerryblog at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, sure The Lottery is canonical, or seminal, or whatever, but Herland is marginal enough not be considered so, no? Genuinely curious but perhaps I should wait for the blog post to explain..
posted by latkes at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: On the mainstream/literary front, Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor is very SFF.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 11:55 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Science Fiction Theatre TV series.
The original Outer Limits TV series.
Magazines like Omni.
posted by PickeringPete at 11:59 AM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Oh, and he's probably already on your list, but I don't see that anyone's mentioned William S. Burroughs yet.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 12:10 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Was going to say John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar, but apparently he's British. Which makes me think of Make Room, Make Room! by Harry Harrison, made into Soylent Green. Which makes me think of Logan's Run, Dark Star and Silent Running, all films from the 70s.

PKD mentioned already but I wonder about including the short story 'Second Variety', which was made into a forgettable film but also influenced things like Terminator.

(btw Arthur C Clarke, mentioned above, was British....)
posted by Pink Frost at 12:15 PM on March 23, 2014

(Only just realized you specified American, so that bumps CCF and Jasper Fforde off my list (sorry!)

For films/TV, would love to see Enemy Mine and the TV miniseries V included as well
posted by Mchelly at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Speaking of The Lottery, I'm curious if you'll include The Hunger Games, which I think is interesting in the way it semi-subverts the distopian scifi genre toward conventionally female interests, in that it reads to me like a romance novel (which happens to be about teenagers killing each other and The Revolution and stuff), and also it's biggest inspiration looks like Shirley Jackson (instead of a male author).
posted by latkes at 12:44 PM on March 23, 2014

Although it reads like fantasy or horror, remember that George R. R. Martin's seminal but relatively obscure novella Sandkings, first published in Omni magazine, is set on another planet at some future time.
posted by nicwolff at 1:19 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr's 1974 novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In is an excellent early (& feminist) example of cyberpunk [wikipedia; text]. If Gibson's Neuromancer is considered a defining specimen of the cyberpunk genre, The Girl Who Was Plugged In was its genesis: Gibson cited it as an influence for Neuromancer, which he wrote fully a decade later.
posted by Westringia F. at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the movie Mr. Nobody would fit this
posted by waitangi at 2:27 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Theodore Sturgeon. All of them, but to pick one - More Than Human.
posted by mgrrl at 3:57 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: I apologize if this hasn't been mentioned because it's too obvious, but Hyperion (and its follow-ups) and Ilium/Olympos by Dan Simmons seem pretty canonical.
posted by ORthey at 5:55 PM on March 23, 2014

if i were making a comprehensive list of postapocalyptic fiction, i would have to include The Scarlet Plague. i don't know if your sci-fi list is going to include that subgenre, and some would argue that the text isn't really sci-fi-y.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:27 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Feed by MT Anderson

All seminal children's/YA sci-fi books
posted by wsquared at 6:30 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: okay, i have to add some more because postapocalyptic is my favorite genre and most people toss it under sci-fi.....

alas, babylon
the postman
earth abides
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:40 PM on March 23, 2014

Best answer: I'm surprised no one's mentioned Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others. (Maybe that counts as one of your heavy hitters, in which case, apologies for the redundancy.) Not only is his work accessible and thoughtful, the stories in that collection earned a slew of awards, so it gives an insight (albeit a partial one) into what work has been highly regarded in the genre.
posted by xenization at 7:30 PM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll throw out some writers that have been very influential if less honored:

Andre Norton, who published for over fifty years, and wrote everything from post-apocalyptic nuclear wastelands to sword-and-sorcery to space opera. Well into her 50s, she realized she'd written no novels with a female protagonist, and immediately started doing so. Year of the Unicorn or Plague Ship.

Anne McCaffrey, who might have had questionable notions about sexual consent and homosexuality, but was still enormously popular in the late 70s and 80s, and straddled the line between science fiction and fantasy with some skill. Dragonsong.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, who introduced a generation of fantasy readers to the idea of a freestanding feminist society. Any of the Darkover novels, I can't bring any titles to mind right now.

CJ Cherryh, who has been writing sf and fantasy of solid quality for forty years, and nobody can beat her alien cultures for true alien-ness. My personal favorite is the Chanur novels, but the Foreigner stuff is very popular.

Mercedes Lackey, without whom we wouldn't be cursed blessed by nearly as many teenager-with-magical animal stories. Massively influential if read at the sweet spot between 11 and 17 (possibly unbearable after that point). Arrows of the Queen?

Tamora Pierce, also hugely influential in the late 80s-90s, and who continues to develop her skills and the scope of her storytelling. I like the Protector of the Small series better than the Lioness books.

Barbara Hambly, who has been writing better-than-competent fantasy and mysteries for over thirty years, and not getting nearly enough respect for it, except from readers who pay attention. I really like the Renwath novels, because they're seriously creepy.
posted by suelac at 8:28 PM on March 23, 2014

A request that people explain why they're suggesting the suggestions they're suggesting.

This is like a "think of any title which pops into your head" type question.
posted by ovvl at 8:44 PM on March 23, 2014

Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller
Foundation Trilogy - Isaac Asimov
I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
Starship Troopers - Robert Heinlein
Ursula K Leguin - The Left Hand of Darkness

Sorry if any of these feel obvious rather than middle range, but sometimes it's hard to judge - they all fit firmly within the realm of personal/sentimental favourites for me though!
posted by Chairboy at 2:45 AM on March 24, 2014

re-read the Escape Plus collection last night. Awesome. Reminded me to add, though, Westlake's Tomorrow's Crimes. That's the book that got me into his crime fiction.

I've read and seen a lot more sci fi than I posted, I tried to keep it down to influential to me items - and adding in Moon as well.
posted by tilde at 7:48 AM on March 24, 2014

Best answer: Oh, and The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey.
posted by Chairboy at 7:52 AM on March 24, 2014

Regardless of what I think of him personally, Orson Scott Card's books Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead have to be represented, if only for being the first time an author's novels have won both the Hugo and Nebula in consecutive years; and they remain popular nearly 30 years later.

I'm sure Firefly won't make the cut. In an alternate universe it had another three seasons, gaining continually in popularity and closing to acclaim rivaling that of Breaking Bad. It is now widely known and universally hailed as a masterpiece (in that other universe).
posted by johnofjack at 8:05 AM on March 24, 2014

You know, the edit window has closed but the second half of my comment above is completely useless and doesn't answer the question. Sorry.
posted by johnofjack at 8:26 AM on March 24, 2014

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New sun tetralogy is widely considered one of the first works of literary "speculative fiction" so well written and full of meta-fictional hijinks that calling it Sci Fi seemed to just not fit.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:01 AM on March 24, 2014

Obvious category?: Fredrick Pohl; Larry Niven, Ringworld.

Also agree that Anathem by Stephensen was underrated. Would China Melville Perdido Street Station qualify or is that in the 'fantasy' category?

New - Hugh Howey, Wool/Silo series.
posted by typecloud at 11:37 AM on March 24, 2014

Here's one my kids reminded me of this morning. Pokemon. Wait, crap, not American. Darnit. Well Thundarr the Barbarian, def made an impression on me.
posted by tilde at 6:23 AM on March 25, 2014

Assume these are among the obvious US category, but throwing them out there as I don't think they've been called out otherwise:

S. R. Delany - Dhalgren, Nova, Babel-17
Codwainer Smith - Nostrilla
Alfred Bester - Stars My Destination, The Demolished Man, Golem 100
RA Lafferty
The Avram Davidson Treasury

KW Jeter - Dr Adder
Kim Stanley Robinson's works
Neal Stephenson's works
Stephen Wright - M31
Lucius Shephard - Life During Wartime

Bruce Sterling's Mirrorshades analogy and agree w earlier poster re: Gene Wolff

Some recent ones I've enjoyed include works by Daniel Suarez and Ted Chiang as well as the Notebooks of Dr Brain by Minister Faust. Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow probably figure into canon as latter day members as well.
posted by neoist at 8:41 AM on March 25, 2014

Forgot at least one important addition - the work of Theodore Sturgeon, especially in the 50s, is some of the best short story writing of the last century
posted by neoist at 9:02 AM on March 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's occurred to me you are saying "works," rather than specifying books and films.

If you're open to music, I think (One Eyed One Horned) Flying Purple People Eater should probably be on there.
posted by Mchelly at 10:52 AM on March 25, 2014

"personal and sentimental favorites" - I can do that

I came in to make sure there was at least one mention of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden universe, if only because they are a concrete example of the internet reviving a dead franchise/universe. Plus, any series still ongoing after 25 years deserves a mention.

And Sharon Lee points out that when they were published, ass-kicking women weren't yet a thing, and they were pretty ground-breaking.
posted by timepiece at 6:00 PM on March 25, 2014

posted by tilde at 6:04 PM on April 1, 2014


Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy
posted by ElectricGoat at 9:12 AM on July 11, 2014

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