Sci-fi Survey Course
December 8, 2022 1:39 PM   Subscribe

As a reading project for 2023, I want to read through a list of classic/foundational/influential science fiction novels and short stories. The problem is, I have to make the list first, and there is so much science fiction. What should go on my list?

- While I would prefer these books to be enjoyable reads, I’m more interested in watching the genre evolve over time. Works that maybe aren’t super fun for the modern reader or aren’t widely read anymore but were influential at the time are very welcome.

- I’d prefer to keep this to mostly books/short stories, but if you have a movie or radio show you really think I should put on the list, feel free to mention it.

- While there’s obviously crossover between the scifi and fantasy genres and cross contamination is inevitable, I’d prefer to stay on the scifi side of the line as much as possible.

- I’m mostly interested in 20th century scifi and would prefer not to venture much further back than the 19th.

- Please recommend specific works if possible, rather than authors.

Thank you!
posted by darchildre to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
Isaac Asimov's "Foundation."
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:42 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Asimov's Foundation 'trilogy' (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation)

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

The Last Question by Asimov
posted by GernBlandston at 1:50 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Fifties: The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, and Childhood's End, by Isaac Asimov.

Sixties: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. Absolutely essential. Deeply moving.

Seventies: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman.
posted by Caxton1476 at 1:51 PM on December 8, 2022 [9 favorites]

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Maybe this list is helpful?
posted by vunder at 1:54 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

It’s long, but The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf. It leans a little toward fantasy (Wikipedia calls it “Science Fantasy,”), but should definitely be included in any list of foundational/important sci-fi novels (IMO).
posted by boisterousBluebird at 1:55 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

2nd The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness. I’m general you could do a lot worse than starting with the list of joint Hugo/Nebula winners.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:56 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

2nd Frankenstein.
posted by rustcellar at 1:58 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh, and The Stars My Destination was hugely influential on cyberpunk, that’s worth a read.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:59 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

H.G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898)
Fritz Lang: Metropolis (1927, movie)
Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1942+ Really a whole series)
Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)
Neal Stephenson: Snowcrash (1992)
Ted Chiang: Story of Your Life (1998)
James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Wakes (2011. 1st of the Expanse series))
Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem (2014)

See Also:

And the obligatory note from Lessons from the Screenplay's analysis of Arrival :
Pure, thoughtful science fiction is never just about aliens, or other worlds, or exciting visions of the future. At it's core, hard sci-fi is about humanity. Our hopes and fears, principles and behaviors.
On review: Everything listed above. :-)
posted by SegFaultCoreDump at 2:01 PM on December 8, 2022 [7 favorites]

H G Wells The Time Machine and War of the Worlds.
posted by jamjam at 2:02 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Machine Stops (.pdf), by E. M. Forster (1909); Wikipedia
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:06 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Voyage to the Moon

Conan Dole Journey to the Center of the Earth

Houston, Houston Do You Read?, James Tiptree Jr.

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes (?).
posted by jamjam at 2:12 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Nobody has mentioned anything from the 30's yet. From the 30's it is hard do better than Star Maker (1937) by Olaf Stapledon.
posted by RichardP at 2:12 PM on December 8, 2022 [5 favorites]

Mr. Frog suggests The Mote in God's Eye, by Jerry Pournell and Larry Niven.
posted by gideonfrog at 2:14 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Jo Walton's Revisiting the Hugos series, starting in 1953 and going forward until 2000 (on the theory that anything newer than 2000 wasn't really old enough to have "stood the test of time" yet) is a pretty excellent overview of what was best in science fiction in each year, and what was influential on what came afterwards.

From those columns, if I had to pull out some extremely influential books (also: cutting out the fantasy, the horror, the is-it-really-science-fiction? like Kurt Vonnegut), I might end up with a list something like this:

Theodore Sturgeon - More than Human
Walter Miller - A Canticle for Leibowitz
Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Philip K. Dick - The Man in the High Castle
Frank Herbert - Dune
Samuel Delany - Babel 17, Dhalgren
John Brunner - Stand on Zanzibar
Ursula Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed
Philip Jose Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go
Octavia Butler - Kindred, Dawn
Gene Wolf - The Shadow of the Torturer
CJ Cherryh - Foreigner
William Gibson - Neuromancer
Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon the Deep
Neil Stephenson - The Diamond Age
Connie Willis - To Say Nothing of the Dog

I think you have to include a Lois McMaster Bujold, but it would be hard to pick - she wrote several very good books in the 90s but I think the Miles Vorkosigan books stand together as a series too much to pick out just one book.

This list is very white and very male, not because women and people of color weren't writing very good science fiction, but because racism and sexism are big factors in which books get big marketing pushes, which books get talked about, and which books get awards. (I think that building a "canon" that pushes against the very famous white men is a worthy project, and I'm sure there are Mefites who could do an excellent job of it, but when I'm thinking of "what are the super famous influential classic science fiction books" a lot of the authors that come up are white men.)
posted by Jeanne at 2:18 PM on December 8, 2022 [12 favorites]

For Azimov (who needs to be on the list) I would vote any of the I, Robot anthology go on first.

Gibson needs to be there too if you want cyberpunk, Neuromancer is pretty short for a novel but the short story Johnny Mnemonic lays the groundwork.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:19 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Short fiction:

"Love Is the Plan, The Plan Is Death", James Tiptree Jr.
"Thunder and Roses" and "The Man Who Lost The Sea", Theodore Sturgeon
"All Summer in a Day", Ray Bradbury
"Burning Chrome", William Gibson
"Speech Sounds", Octavia Butler
"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", Jorge Luis Borges
"The Dunwich Horror", H.P. Lovecraft, and then "Shoggoths in Bloom", Elizabeth Bear
"The Water that Falls on You From Nowhere", John Chu
"The Ones who Walk Away From Omelas", Ursula LeGuin
"The Story of Your Life", Ted Chiang

I could go on. But. Y'know. You have to start somewhere.
posted by byzantienne at 2:28 PM on December 8, 2022 [7 favorites]

Also, my best friend read the collection A Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction, and she said it was AMAZING for pointing her at stories and novels that were doing innovative things and setting up tropes we'd be reading for years. She spent a good year following rabbit holes out of that book.

(And Mr. Frog suggests Verner Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.)
posted by gideonfrog at 2:28 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

We (1924) is the inspiration for much of the dystopian genre, including Brave New World, 1984, Vonnegut, etc.
posted by credulous at 2:34 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

Dangerous Visions anthologies from the 60s - revolutionary at the time, lots of influence on the next wave.
posted by matildaben at 2:35 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I would add at least a couple books from Iain Banks’ Culture series, which spanned from the late 80’s to the early 2010’s. ‘The Player of Games’, ‘Use of Weapons’, and ‘Excession’ are often considered some of the stronger books in the series.
posted by scantee at 2:36 PM on December 8, 2022 [5 favorites]

I actually put together some stuff on these lines for a book group/class I used to run!

I would recommend that you chew through at least one early Russian SF novel - Red Star, by Bogdanov, was the main one we did. We also read Aelita, Queen of Mars

A couple of other recommendations/reasons:

Significant women's SF anthologies of the seventies/eighties:
The first three Women of Wonder anthologies were important in creating a "canon" for feminist and women's science fiction. They will also give you a pretty good starting point for seeking out more stories by women.

Both Dark Matter anthologies - collections of SF stories by Black writers. The first one in particular was super influential at a time when more SF by Black writers was getting published.

Towering SFnal figure Samuel Delany - where does one even begin? Probably not with Dhalgren unless you are an ambitious reader used to tackling long and experimental work. Delany...when you're talking about the artier, more experimental end of science fiction, there's hardly a contemporary book where you can't detect his influence, at least at a remove. Also he is an incredibly fun memoirist and strong theorist of language and science fiction. I think good starting points are often either the pulpier early novels (Babel-17, Einstein Intersection), Triton, which is a really good novel about gender which pairs well with The Dispossessed (a book he disliked on IMO rather unfair grounds) or the short stories in "Aye, And Gomorrah. "Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" is such an important short story, and so baffled the hell out of me when I first read it at 18 because I hadn't read anything like it.

Towering SFnal figure Harlan Ellison: If you want to get a sense of...sixtiesness, sixties science fiction, a kind of countercultural voice, a strong sense of, I dunno, dudes really failing to rock, read Deathbird Stories, also "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream"* and "Repent, Harlequin, Said The TickTok Man". You may not emerge liking him very much, so I would suggest reading a couple of his autobiographical essays - about being a Jewish kid, about hating the cops and running afoul of them, about doing some civil rights activism, about abortion. They really inform his work and I will always have some admiration for him despite his many. many failings.

Important fifties/sixties New Wave precursers: People think that fifties/early sixties SF is all Asimov and golden age stodgery, but you really should read The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination - they will, I kid you not, blow your mind and also clarify a lot of what happened in the sixties, SF-wise. Also The Space Merchants

Speaking of the New Wave, you also should read Dangerous Visions - it will give you a little Delany and Ellison, for one thing. There are several more anthologies in the series. Some of the stories haven't held up well, but again, you'll learn a lot about the milieu.

The hotly controversial, Le Guin-edited Norton Book of Science Fiction, published in 1997, will get you up to speed on things between 1960 and the nineties. There is an extremely period-characteristic Islamophobic short story, "We See Things Differently", which I think is a very revealing story but is an unpleasant read and was a mistake to include since after all it's not a book of Influential But Immoral Stories.

You could do a lot worse than poke about amongst the SF Masterworks series.

I have collected a number of the Women's Press science fiction novels and while they are uneven to say the slightest, I am glad to have read them.

One cannot overstate the influence of Octavia Butler. If I had to pick the single most influential SF writer of about 1980 onward it would be her. I'm running out of energy for this very long comment, but you must read her if you haven't. Lilith's Brood is the best starting place because the Parables books are too depressing, and that's saying a lot given OB.

Geez. I could go on and on. Here is a list of SF books that I think are interesting and underknown:

Moderan. New Wave, gets a little repetitive but I'm glad I read it.
Ice by Anna Kavan
Memoirs of a Spacewoman
In the Mothers' Land, Elisabeth Vonarburg
Floating Worlds, by Cecilia Holland - so boring! Yet so gripping! Like if you were to read the entire seventies, somehow.

As you may infer, I would not stand behind all the politics of all these books. They are books that I'd suggest reading as part of a push to get a sense of the trajectory of science fiction and I have not recommended anything I consider irredeemably and totally toxic, but lord knows you should be prepared.

Strangely, I just happened across this promising article on Tor: Who Are The Forgotten Greats of Science Fiction. It looks good to me.

Also, because respectable books don't always give you a sense of what was really going on, ForFemFan is an extremely fun blog which reviews old, mostly cheesy, often fairly successful fantasy and science fiction by women. Most of it is from the seventies through nineties and it gives a good, lively sense of the SF book wall at, eg, a Waldenbooks.

*Wherein Ellison reveals that he for some reason believes that having a large penis would be a drawback for a gay man.
posted by Frowner at 2:39 PM on December 8, 2022 [31 favorites]

credulous provided an outstanding survey of classic early sci-fi. not a lemon in the whole lot. my fave is a rose for ecclesiastes. if you can't find this volume, hunt down other short fiction anthologies that include the same stories or authors.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:49 PM on December 8, 2022

Conan Doyle Lost World, can’t believe I attributed Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth to him.
posted by jamjam at 2:53 PM on December 8, 2022

I love the recommendations on this list and +1 them all. Some additions below (many are partnered with movies/TV shows):

1. Leviathan Wakes series by James S.A. Corey (really two other authors combining together). A companion TV series The Expanse is really great and finished recently so binge watching could be a possibility.

2. The Talents Universe books by Anne McCaffrey. She is known mostly for her Pern series but she did a series of SF books which were great. Especially loved To Ride a Pegasus.

3. Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. The movie kind of killed this book but the book itself is good and has its place in time.

3. Dune series by Frank Herbert. Great SF series and the movies (I think) do not do the books justice.
posted by ichimunki at 2:58 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh no, just noticed the 20th century restriction! Take out Leviathan Wakes as that is 21st century.
posted by ichimunki at 3:01 PM on December 8, 2022

Learning about so many great books here! So exciting!

May I add Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1971) - probably the one anyone who's read any Russian sci-fi has read?
posted by AbelMelveny at 3:05 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

No Zelazny? I suppose the Amber books walk the fine line between fantasy and SF, but at least Lord of Light; for short stories, The Last Defender of Camelot (a few of the short stories collected also approach that line, but in the end most people would think of him as SF, not fantasy).

Since we're talking about the classics, I'm assuming there's a "here be outdated attitudes" warning assumed. Not that Zelazny is worse than many of the others named here.
posted by praemunire at 3:12 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

lord of light +1
posted by j_curiouser at 3:15 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

I’d suggest one of my favorite books Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut for a few reasons. One, Vonnegut was prolific and has enduring influence so you should probably read at least one of his works. Two, Slaughterhouse-Five is semi autobiographical so you get a deeper view of the person behind the work simultaneously. Three, it’s an incredible example of scifi being utilized to tell a deeply human and period specific story. Four, it straddles genres in a way that can really help you learn to see those boundaries in other works. Five, it’s just so heckin’ good.
posted by Mizu at 3:25 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

I really enjoyed the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy by Douglas Adams. It mixes the scifi inventiveness, worldbuilding, with exceptionally wry observations about empire and hubris and some just plain silly fun. I read it in my early teens, while also reading the Bradbury and Asimov and Vonnegut and it illuminated a lot of the templates for fiction as political or social commentary.
posted by typetive at 3:35 PM on December 8, 2022 [5 favorites]


(Make sure you get the more recent direct to English translation, not the weird Polish to French to English one)
posted by phunniemee at 3:48 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend The World Treasury of Science Fiction, and then skim through the table of contents of the annual The Year's Best Science Fiction.
posted by porpoise at 4:07 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Influential radio shows should include at least The War of the Worlds (1938), Journey into Space (1953), and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978 - the original version of the story).

The Orion SF Masterworks book series has nice editions of many of the books mentioned above, although it leans more towards novels than short stories. You can often find scans of older SF magazines on if you'd like to read short stories in their original format.
posted by offog at 4:09 PM on December 8, 2022

A lot of great books here. I'd vote to add The Female Man by Joanna Russ to your list.
posted by saladin at 4:13 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

nthing Frowner's list, particularly Bester. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination , written in the early 1950s are astonishing.

Whenever you read any post 1950's scifi and encounter ANY "new trope" , dollars to donuts, oooh a 1 in 4 chance bester did it first in one of these two books.

And "the stars my destination", in addition, is a goddamn sci fi pastiche of The Count of Monte Cristo!
posted by lalochezia at 4:39 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

So many good books on the list already, adding Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series.

Also while they're still new enough to maybe not count yet, I believe that the Ancillary Justice series will probably be seen as foundational as time passes. They're still just remarkable.
posted by Mchelly at 4:50 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

People differ and I found them only interesting as historical artifacts, not as good reads, but Doc Smith's Lensman books more or less invented space opera.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:10 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Peak white dude pre-sixties science fiction treasure trove: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One

(Judith Merrill notwithstanding)

Note that the stories here are not all romps of meritocratic sapiosexual technophilia. Lots of intersections with horror here, and there are multiple stories of horrible/monstrous children.

and yeah you may definitely encounter attitudes that don't comport with modernity here.

(edit: ah, missed that credulous called this one out)
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:30 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh thank you Jeanne! +++ to Connie Willis and an enthusiastic "yes with bells on" to Octavia Butler and Le Guin!

Dune too, not the whole series but the original worldbuilding and story.
+1 to Clarke's Rama books being part of a foundational SF reading

I... have avoided Corey's work due to the series (which I enjoyed but didn't find incredible), but from the comments here, it sounds like I need to rethink that.

My top 3 recent reccs are NK jemison especially broken earth series), leckie (imperial radch series), and the underappreciated hurley's god's war series
Plus 2: Wool series (the first book was particularly excellent, reminded me of The Giver) and Red/blue/green mars series.
posted by esoteric things at 5:36 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

SF HOF v. 2 contains "Vintage Season," which is one of my favorite ever SF short stories/novellas (though I haven't re-read it for a good while). But, yeah, buckle up and secure all children in safe places before digging into those volumes.
posted by praemunire at 6:22 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.
Kindred by Octavia Butler.
posted by spiderbeforesunset at 6:30 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

I actually took a class on SF in high school, and the teacher used The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One (cited upthread twice) as one of the texts, along with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This was back in (ahem) 1983—I'd like to think he'd have a wider-ranging syllabus if he were teaching today.

You can't beat PKD for influence—how many of his stories and books were made into movies? His short stories are probably where the real action is with him, and if you had to choose just one, maybe Second Variety. That distills his weirdness down into a small nugget. He was the O. Henry of surreal SF. For a longer work, Ubik is a great representative of his writing and has echoes all over SF.

Heinlein qualifies as problematic in lots of ways, but still, influential. For him, I'd recommend a novella from early in his career and a novel from late in his career that—if you're paying attention—are connected. Gulf and Friday.

Larry Niven. Ringworld. There was a sequel, and in fact it was set in Niven's "Known Space" continuum, so if you like that, you can read lots more like it.

I could go on.
posted by adamrice at 6:55 PM on December 8, 2022

John Varley has gotten no love here, but I highly recommend finding his story Press Enter for both an excellent character study and an effective bit of tech-oriented horror (available in this anthology of his shorter work). His "Gaia" trilogy is among my favorites, though perhaps not as foundational as many mentioned here.

I, too, am a James Blish fan, not only for Cities In Flight but also for his three books of stories from the original Star Trek television series...some of them better than the source material.

One cannot ignore movies. Science fiction is largely a product of the 20th century, and film was the dominant art form of the century. Science fiction movies are as foundational to science fiction as books. Here are a few classics to add some spice to your reading:

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The War Of The Worlds (1953)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Planet Of The Apes (1968)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
posted by lhauser at 7:07 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber

And this is controversial as the series was so clearly not PC but I loved it so much as a straight woman. Who knows why? The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison
posted by ichimunki at 7:28 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Karel Capek's 1920 R.U.R., the first play to mention the word "robot". But my favorite Capek novel is "War with the Newts" 1936.
posted by Arctostaphylos at 7:48 PM on December 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

A useful and entertaining source is British critic David Pringle's book, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. It discusses 100 novels published 1949 - 1984, starting with 1984 and ending with Neuromancer, devoting about two pages to each. His list of 100 novels appears in the linked Wikipedia article.
posted by JonJacky at 7:54 PM on December 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

You're getting a lot of fine recommendations here. But if I were you, I'd check out a couple of online resources. (Sadly, both are now victims of bitrot, so I'm going to link to their Internet Archive versions.)

First, there's this old list of course materials for a university class in science fiction.

Second — and better — is this basic science-fiction library compiled by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at Kansas State. It includes some excellent recommendations (with commentary). The bottom of the page includes links to other lists of sci-fi books.

So, if you'd prefer something more organized than the chaos of AskMe suggestions, check those two out (especially the second one).

p.s. You might also see whether you can find a copy of Anatomy of Wonder by Neil Barron. Some libraries carry it. I own the third and fourth editions. Of those, I prefer the third (even though it only includes books up until 1981). I haven't seen the most recent (fifth) edition.
posted by jdroth at 8:05 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

I just realized that A Wrinkle in Time isn't on the list yet, so I'm adding it. It might be YA but I think it's seminal.
posted by Mchelly at 8:19 PM on December 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

also for his three books of stories from the original Star Trek television series...some of them better than the source material

They may not be "seminal," but they are just enjoyable as a kid I think I liked them more than the actual shows.
posted by praemunire at 8:48 PM on December 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

Are you only interested in English/American novels? If not, Stanislaw Lem was a giant influence on Western SF as well - I'd start with one of the short story collections, maybe Star Diaries or Cyberiad. The Strugatsky brothers have more in translation than my favourite Bulychev - Monday Starts on Saturday and Roadside Picnic are the absolute classics. This collection looks like a great selection of seminal Russian-language authors and reviews say the translations are very good.

If you end up expanding to the 21st century, Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice was seminal in changing what is acceptable in the genre mainstream, and the Murderbot series was an utter breakout.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:59 PM on December 8, 2022 [6 favorites]

I would definitely second JonJacky's reccomendation of the David Pringle 100 Best book / list for the postwar - cyberpunk era. I picked it up on a whim from a thrift bookshop for next to nothing many years back and then used it as a guide for further huntings through piles of tattered paperbacks.

It explicitly has that element of representative / influential even if Pringle doesn't overly enjoy them in some of its choices.

If I had to pick just one from that list that I would otherwise probably not have read, and that hasn't yet been mentioned, it would be Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. It's one of those rare books where not just the book itself but the memory of the experience of reading it for the first time still makes my hairs stand on end.
posted by protorp at 3:03 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree with lots of the above and disagree with none, so I'll limit myself to saying that I think you have to read some of Asimov's robot stories as well as the Foundation trilogy. It's just so important to how robots canonically work in mainstream sci fi. They are also good for short stories, which were really important to the genre. And then, for a very British take on sci fi, I would add Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham) to the above recommendations of War of the Worlds and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
posted by plonkee at 3:06 AM on December 9, 2022

I would like to add

* A Princess Of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and probably the next two books in the series (Gods, and Warlords). A confederate (!) soldier is whisked away to Mars (called Barsoom here) and goes all swashbuckling hero because he's a 1g man in a 1/3g world. Written in 1912, with all the problematic tropes that you can imagine, it's one of the earliest Sci-Fi novels with influences throughout the genre for, well, over 100 years. It's pulpy, a fast read, and if you stop after the third book you can avoid the *really* awkward tropes.

* Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C Clarke, Clarke is more well known for his contribution to 2001 the Film and writing 2001 the Novel; but I feel this is far more grounded and hard sci-fi. A mysterious thing arrives in Solar System, only a rag tag military crew can reach it... investigation ensues.

* Seconding (!) Second Variety (A very long short Story) by P K Dick, humans are at war with the soviets and the killer robots they built to help are becoming sentient. The Soviets call for a true and an American starts to walk towards enemy lines. Of all of Dick's favourite twists, they're all smashed into here.
posted by ewan at 3:51 AM on December 9, 2022

You're getting a ton of great suggestions here!

A couple influential sci-fi authors who are missing (apologies if I skimmed over them and they are here somewhere) and a few novels that I think are great are:

The Strugatsky Brothers. Roadside Picnic is the obvious choice, in terms of influence, but they were pretty prolific, so you've got choices.

Bulgakov is another Soviet-era writer who wrote in a few genres, including sci-fi. The Master and Margarita is amazing but not really sci-fi, but his novellas like Heart of a Dog or The Fatal Eggs definitely are.

Mary Doria Russell - The Sparrow is one of the best novels about first contact I've ever read. Beautiful and harrowing.

Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx & Crake in particular).

Another one by an author who's not a specifically sci-fi author is Jonathan Lethem's Gun with Occasional Music. It's a noir + sci-fi and is a great example of 1990s sci-fi.
posted by snaw at 4:41 AM on December 9, 2022 [3 favorites]

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

And some books that are out of print but I really loved as a teen. I believe they are still available used:

Alien Music by Annabel and Edgar Johnson

Unwillingly to Earth by Pauline Ashwell
posted by ichimunki at 5:05 AM on December 9, 2022

I keep on adding to the list because I'm am SF obsessed! We would be remiss not to add Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. He is more known for his short stories and was a major inspiration of both Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. Just really interesting and ahead of time SF.
posted by ichimunki at 5:17 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is a beautiful list of recommendations, and I'd only add that James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon) is usually represented in these lists by just one of her stories, often "Houston, Houston Do You Read?" This may have made sense in the day, but since the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is easily available, it is extremely worth it to read as many of her stories as possible. They are both of their time (mostly 60s to 80s), unique, and works whose influence you'll start to see everywhere as you work towards modern scifi. I think about "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" a lot.
posted by theweasel at 6:01 AM on December 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, was quite impactful - discussing "what defines sapience?".
posted by jpeacock at 7:13 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Thinking about this again, in light of what I did when organizing my reading group, a possibility would be for you to choose some important themes/moments to organize your reading around. Then you could easily use this thread and the internet to choose the most interesting-sounding books or stories to read for each.

Another option would be to read queer science fiction, science by women, science fiction by writers of color, science fiction specifically by Black authors, etc and read on a historical basis.

I think it's a lot easier to choose, say, "five influential early cyberpunk novels" or "five early short stories by women writers" than to choose from all of science fiction starting in about 1880.

One thing: it matters a lot how "respectable" science fiction is. In the mid-late 19th century, the sixties and again now, for instance, science fiction is seen as "literary" and literary people can read it. This means that what gets written, published and distributed is different than in times when SF is seen as pulpy and marginal. SF changes in the sixties, IMO, and its scope expands a lot.

Anyway. It sounds as though your general approach is historical. The list below is basically only reflective of my interests and understanding and would need to be mashed together with stuff from other people, especially people who knew more about SF pre-1950 and SF in the 1980s.

These are all more about the US than about even the Anglosphere.

1920s-1940s: Pulps and popular science fiction - planetary romance, imaginary Mars and Venus, adventure. Women writers, women editors, seek out the small number of identifiable stories by queer writers and writers of color. (Because people wrote under pseudonyms, it is likely that there are more of these stories than definitely known.) Probably read some cosmic horror/Lovecraft; IMO these stories are substantially about the global south and east as settings for adventure - Northwest of Earth is very much in this vein.

1950s: I know the fifties mostly as precursor to the New Wave and socially critical SF of the 60s and seventies, so my recommendations are basically Alfred Bester. Other people will have lots of good recommendations here.

1960s/70s: New Wave. Dangerous Visions. There are a bunch of sixties anthologies adjacent to New Worlds, a magazine edited by Michael Moorcock, himself a big figure SFF-wise. These anthologies are probably a good starting point since they will give you a sense of what the New Wave itself thought it was doing - you can follow up by reading more by those authors. Socially critical SF - SF about population, about colonialism, about racism, etc set in the near future or an identifiable American/Earth future - John Brunner for instance. Queer science fiction -there's some sorta-overtly-queer short stories pre New Wave, but you start getting more (Samuel Delany, for instance, who you can read any time in any quantity, he's a big figure in the 60s through the present, amazingly)

1960s/1970s: Women writers, anxiety about family. This overlaps with New Wave but isn't the same - you would read Pamela Sargent, Kate Wilhelm, Judith Merril, Zenna Henderson. There were a number of women who were very successful in mainstream science fiction in the sixties and seventies and whose work flows directly into self-designated feminist science fiction in the seventies. (It's not like there were zero women writing in the forties and fifties, either, but I feel like women writing in a proto-feminist fashion about women in SF settings really becomes a thing in the sixties/seventies) There are a LOT of stories in the late fifties/sixties, by men and woman, whose plot is basically "these women/children HAVE A SECRET POWER that the men/adults discover - women and children, far from being cute idiots as we assumed, are actually dangerous".

1970s: Science fiction that self-identifies as feminist and/or from a marginalized standpoint. Joanna Russ's The Female Man is probably the absolutely key book to read. Women of Wonder anthologies were published starting now and are important canon-formation and will lead you to other critical 70s books. Native writer Craig Strete was sort of hounded out of science fiction in the eighties and has been almost forgotten, but wrote a lot of big stuff in the seventies.

1980s: Famously, cyberpunk saw itself in opposition to the New Wave, to feminist SF, to the cultural/hippie/etc SF of the seventies. If you read through the seventies and eighties, you'll see that in retrospect this is not nearly as sharp a division as they maintained, and in fact people like William Gibson were big fans of Le Guin, etc. Cyberpunk's fascination with Japan, with Asia generally and with the "global" is in a way a return to the colonialist romances of earlier SF. Early cyberpunk by men is pretty misogynist and to an almost comic degree fails the Bechdel test. While it is worthwhile to read Gibson, etc, it is also worthwhile to continue with Marge Piercy's He, She and It and IMO to read up through Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy - those have really grown on me, and I now really see the middle one as "what would it actually be like to be a lowly peon in the cool mirrorshades future". Red Spider, White Web is very hard to find but good to be aware of. A difficult, weird, cool book which should absolutely be reprinted.

Again, I'm out of energy, but I will add quickly:

1990s/2000s: New Weird, I will let you google.

1990s/2000s: I don't know a specific term, but "more SF writers of color become visible and a canon/genealogy starts to develop" is basically what I mean. Dark Matter was published in 2005 and contains stories Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl and Kiini Ibura Salaam in particular, all of whom were becoming more visible and influential. Andrea Hairston published the very strange, unwieldy, cool, ambitious Mindscape in 2006. Octavia Butler's profile rose steadily in this time - it's not that she wasn't well-known before, but her work was more and more the subject of study and consciously raised up as an influence on activism and SF writing by writers of color. Because of publishers like Aqueduct and anthologies like Dark Matter (and editors like Sheree Thomas), the average SF fan went from having to really look to find work by writers of color (besides Butler and Delany) in the nineties to have to really work to keep up with everything that was coming out. This change accompanied a change in marketing of SF (and the rise of YA), a lot of changes in audience and named/intended audience and a tremendous change in scope. I think this is probably the biggest change modern SF has undergone as a genre, more significant even than the New Wave. Afrofuturism is a big aspect of this turn, especially because it proved a designation with a lot of cultural traction that could be used across music, movies, fashion, books, etc, but that only captures part of the whole.

Things I haven't mentioned: Feminist SF of the eighties (several big - literally big! - books there), the emergence of science fiction written especially for children and then the emergence of YA, the whole space opera thing, Heinlein, religious science fiction...It is a large field!
posted by Frowner at 7:53 AM on December 9, 2022 [8 favorites]

C.J. Cherryh is one of my favorites if not my very favorite SF writer. Her writing is so prolific as to beggar belief (list of her many series here) but I was first introduced to her when I came across her "Faded Sun" trilogy, which completely changed how I thought about what it means to be human...and not human. Her works are so, so good!
posted by Lynsey at 8:25 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Mr. Frog suggests The Mote in God's Eye, by Jerry Pournell and Larry Niven.

And seconding Niven's Ringworld for the hard SF. paired with his Neutron Star short story collection.

Cannot believe all the recommendations here for Stranger in Strange Land. Yes, it was wonderful in 1969, but have you ever wanted to read it again? Definitely a Funny Once (you remember Mike the sentient computer from the peak Heinlein Moon Is A Harsh Mistress talking about jokes, how some are funny even when repeated, but others are just Funny Once?)
posted by Rash at 10:05 AM on December 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

There are some amazing recommendations here! If I have missed it forgive me but I didn't see A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I think is absolutely seminal to the ever burgeoning field of post apocalyptic sci fi. It gets to the heart of the creeping nuclear dread that characterized so much of the 20th century.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:29 PM on December 9, 2022 [4 favorites]

Hyperion by Dan Simmons does SF differently from anything else I've ever read. Bonus points if you like the Canterbury Tales. I wouldn't recommend reading the sequels, though.

I hate to drop another white dude rec in here, but all of my other favs have been mentioned.
posted by dgr8bob at 2:37 PM on December 9, 2022

Did James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), aka Racoona Sheldon, get a shout-out yet? Her work is imo essential. And of course Joanna Russ, The Female Man above all.

Also, for reading Delany, I do really believe that Triton is his masterwork. I reread it every couple of years and it is never less than enthralling; there is a sense that yes, this is how the future could grow from the present. And might it have the first depiction of transition in SF? I think it quite possible.
posted by jokeefe at 3:31 PM on December 9, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm a bit late here, but I also have to put in a few votes!

Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, without a doubt. Much better than The Left Hand of Darkness, though of course I know well why the latter is consider absolutely seminal. But the former is just a brilliant, moving, politically profound and imaginatively mind-blowing novel.

Fwiw, reading one of her novels is SO much richer an experience than just reading a short story, like 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'. It does zero credit to Le Guin's incredible imagination to just read this one story, I have to say!

After that, I'd probably read IMO her best short story collection, 'The Birthday of the World'. This has some absolutely wonderful stories – anthropological, interplanetary Le Guin at her best, and a true marker of SF opening up its horizons. Just writing about it makes me want to re-read it. I could suggest more Le Guin for hours, but I'll leave it there...

Also – Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Am picking this over over PKD novels, including the fascinating The Man in the High Castle, because DADoES is so richly futuristic, and so extraordinarily visionary. I think, say, tMitHC – whilst brilliant - is a little confusing, and also an alternative history (and Ubik is just not the place to start in the PKD universe); so if you're reading just one PKD then DADoES is the one, I think. It will launch you into a totally immersive, fascinating future. I marvel that he wrote it in 1968.

And finally, with Octavia Butler, I'm torn. I love the 'Parable'/Earthseed novels – but as another commenter said here, they're seriously depressing. They're brilliant, though, and I don't love the 'Lilith's Brood' trilogy quite as much. I might suggest starting with Kindred, as it's a standalone novel and an intriguing and unforgettable reading experience, but really if I'm recommending Butler I'd go for Earthseed – I think they're her best.

So much fun awaits! What amazing comments – I hope you put together and enjoy a wonderful list!
posted by Ella_Bella at 3:47 PM on December 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

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