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My Favorite Dozen Science-fiction Novels

May 2024
3min read

I would not know how to make a list of ‘The Twelve Best Science-Fiction Novels of All Time.” The stories I like best are so frequently totally unlike each other that it is unfair to try to measure them on the same scale. Instead, here is simply a list of the science-fiction novels that I loved most at first reading, have reread quite recently, and still love.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, 1895 (New American Library, 1984) . Or, indeed, almost anything by Wells, who was the first writer to make humanly plausible excursions into worlds and times wholly unlike our own arid to do it with unfailing grace.

The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., 1928 (Berkeley Publishing Group, 1985) . The first and best writer of space opera, with his first pioneering work. It is not a masterpiece of English prose, but oh how the interstellar adventures of its hero, Richard Seaton, thrilled me with their celebration of science and technology— and still do.

The World Below by S. Fowler Wright, 1929 (Hyperion Press, 1976) . Wright was a highly prolific author in England, but relatively few of his works appeared in this country. His best, I think, is this exploration of the far future of Earth, when the human race has died off and been replaced with strange, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying creatures out of a dream—or nightmare.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov, 1978 (Ballantine Books, 1988) . It isn’t easy for me to choose a single novel out of the works of Isaac Asimov, not only because there are so many of them but also because he and I have been close friends since before either of us had published anything at all. I have long lost the ability to be objective. But The Gods Themselves is the book that pleased me most when I first read it, and its pleasure has not diminished.

Last and First Men by W. Olaf Stapledon, 1930 (Dover Publications) . Another English writer, not as well known as he should be in this country; but this is a magnificent, ground-breaking book. It is nothing less than a complete future history of the human race, extending through the next several billion years.

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, 1941 (Ballantine, 1979) . This wonderful story is about a man who is hurled back in time to the decaying Roman Empire, just before the Dark Ages, and takes it upon himself to prevent them from happening. It is a special favorite for many reasons —not least because it demonstrates so well that science fiction does not have to be about space travel or the future.

The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke, 1956 (New American Library, 1987) . The best novel by one of the best science-fiction writers of all time, this travelogue of the far future of the human race thrilled and touched me.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, 1966 (Ace Books, 1987) . Because I was the editor who first published this novel, I had the privilege of reading it in manuscript, which means I had no advance notice of what it would be like, not even a publisher’s blurb on a book jacket. I was astonished and delighted at every turn of the story. Heinlein is probably the quintessential science-fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century, and I think this story of the Lunar Rebellion against Earth is his best work.

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, 1975 (Bantam, 1983). Dhalgren is a dense, difficult, sensual, and highly erotic novel by one of science fiction’s most original talents; it takes place in a shadowy, unreal city called Bellona, and it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor would everyone consider it science fiction in the first place, perhaps, because there aren’t any Martians or time travelers in it; but science fiction always surprises by continuing to transcend its self-imposed limitations.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969 (Ace Books, 1983) . Le Guin, who is perhaps the most graceful stylist ever to specialize in the genre of science fiction, has the further virtue of courage: she is willing to follow her abundant imagination wherever it may lead. Like Dhalgren , this novel deals with (among other things) sexual relationships, but it does so in Le Guin’s wholly nonerotic, sympathetic, and always enlightening way.

The Long Afternoon of Earth by Brian W. Aldiss, 1961 (Hothouse: Baen Books, 1984) . This is a difficult choice, and many would give pride of place to Aldiss’s remarkable novel Heliconia Spring and the rest of the trilogy that followed. But The Long Afternoon of Earth (sometimes published under the alternative title of Hothouse ) has always enchanted me with its dreamlike, charming pictures of spiderwebs that reach to the Moon and gently declining posthumans whose world is slowly dwindling toward extinction.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 1963 (Dell Publishing Co., 1970) . Another difficult choice—on odd-numbered days I would have preferred Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five —but certainly I could not compile any list of this sort without including something by this splendid writer who made his start in the science-fiction magazines, has always written science fiction of a delightful kind, and obstinately persists in denying that that is what he does.

Because I have limited myself to twelve books, there are scores of exceptional ones that I am guiltily aware of leaving out. Because I have restricted myself to novels, there are dozens of authors whose forte is in the shorter story— Henry Kuttner, Ray Bradbury, Damon Knight, Theodore Sturgeon, R. A. Lafferty, and my old friend and collaborator C. M. Kornbluth among them— who are not represented. I don’t suppose anyone else would have given just this list of twelve favorites. I am not sure I would have myself at some other time. But I do think that somewhere among these dozen are novels that will endear themselves to anyone who enjoys reading at all.

—P.P.

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