Curator's Choice

Many authors, associations and websites have published lists of the "best" science fiction titles of all time. The lists vary, in part, because there is no agreement on how to measure "greatness" or even what constitutes science fiction. However, a small number of titles do appear on most of the lists. Exhibit curator Iris Snyder suggests these ten titles as examples of the best the genre has to offer.

Ray Bradbury.

Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.

In a world hostile to learning and ideas, firemen seek out and burn books. The hero, a fireman but closet reader, joins an underground of wanderers who have committed the literary classics to memory and recite them orally.

Robert A. Heinlein.

Stranger in a Strange Land. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1961.

An orphaned child of the first manned expedition to Mars, raised by Martians, is returned to Earth by a second human expedition. Though he is a man in his twenties, Smith looks at everything on this new planet through the innocent eyes of a baby, and has to learn how to be a human being. The book became part of the 1960s counterculture movement as Heinlein uses the hero's open-mindedness to question institutions such as religion, marriage and consumerism.

An image of Dune.

Frank Herbert.

Dune. New York: Ace, 1965.

Dune is set far in the future amidst a sprawling feudal intergalactic empire where planetary fiefdoms are controlled by noble houses. The hero and his family relocate to the planet Arrakis, the universe's only source of the spice melange. Dune and later books in this series explore the complex interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion in a world that becomes vividly real to the reader.

An image of Canticle for Leibowitz.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam Books 1968.

The earth falls into a new dark age after a nuclear war with the monasteries of the Catholic Church the only shelter for books and learning. Through hundreds of years, the monks of St. Leibowitz watch society re-develop technology only to see it repeat the patterns that brought on the earlier decline. The book reflects on many issues of faith, the relationship between church and state, and the question of whether humans are truly able to learn from their past mistakes.

Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: a Space Odyssey. New York: Signet - New American Library, 1968.

2001: A Space Odyssey was developed concurrently with Stanley Kubrick's film version. The story is based in part on various short stories by Clarke, most notably "The Sentinel" (1951). The theme of the development and perils of technology and space exploration drive the plot of the book. However, it is the mysterious and mystical evolution of man into something more than human that captures the imagination of both readers and movie viewers.

An image of Left Hand of Darkness.

Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.

This is a fascinating exploration of an alien culture where a person's gender changes throughout life. The protagonist is an earthman who must learn to deal with people who are literally "neutral;" although they may seem male one day and female the next.

An image of Do Androids Dream.

Philip K. Dick.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Signet - New American Library, 1969.

This very dark but often funny dystopian novel became the basis for the movie Blade Runner. The androids are so like humans that they can only be distinguished by psychological tests, and some don't even know that they're machines.

Earlier this year, Dick was the topic of a University of Delaware dissertation entitled Philip K. Dick: Canonical Writer of the Digital Age by Lejla Kucukalic.

Gene Wolfe.

The Shadow of the Torturer. Volume One of the Book of the New Sun. New York: Pocket Books, 1980.

The Book of the New Sun series is set in a brilliant and strange universe millions of years in the future. The books are challenging, puzzling and thought-provoking; filled with a meticulously detailed world, credible characters and a polished, literary style. This first volume follows Severian, an apprentice torturer exiled from his guild for showing mercy to a condemned "client" with whom he had fallen in love.

Orson Scott Card.

Ender's Game. New York: TOR, 1985.

After aliens attack the earth, the government develops a program to breed military geniuses and uses games to train them. This coming of age story, follows the students as they train and develop mentally, socially and morally and prepare to save the world. While the end of the book deals with the battle with the aliens, it also gives hints of the unintended consequenses of the young warriors' actions. The remaining books in the Ender series deal more directly and more darkly with the aftermath of the battles.

Mary Doria Russell.

The Sparrow. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

The Sparrow is a subtle and complex story of the tragic results of the good intentions and miscommunication between cultures. It also explores issues of faith and forgiveness under extraordinary circumstances as it follows a voyage of discovery to an unexplored planet.

Science Fiction Series

Science fiction series allow writers to create complex worlds populated by multiple generations of characters. Early series tended to be new adventures of established characters similar to the "penny dreadfuls" and "dime novels" of the late nineteenth century. Later authors used the length and flexibility of a series to create complex fictional civilizations with their own histories, languages, religions and mythologies. Many of the series started as magazine stories and were later expanded for book publication.

An image of Foundation and Empire.

Isaac Asimov.

Second Foundation. New York: Avon Books, 1953.

Isaac Asimov.

Foundation. New York: Avon Books, 1966.

Isaac Asimov.

Foundation and Empire. New York: Avon Books, 1971.

The Foundation Series is an epic science fiction series written over a fifty-year period. It consists of ten volumes (about one million words) and, although they can be read separately, are closely linked to one another. Asimov described the gradual fall of a galactic empire and the effort a "psychohistorian," a man who can foresee the future, to shorten the ensuing Dark Ages by setting up the Foundation, a small secluded haven of technology at the edge of the galaxy, to preserve knowledge of the physical sciences after the collapse. Later stories tell of attempts to conquer the Foundation and to discover a second Foundation.

An image of Darkover Landfall.

Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Darkover Landfall. New York: Daw Books, Inc., 1972.

Marion Zimmer Bradley.

The Spell Sword: A Darkover Novel. New York: Daw Books, Inc., 1974.

Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Red Sun of Darkover. New York: Daw Books, Inc., 1987.

Over a forty year period, Bradley developed the history of the fictional planet Darkover. Originally settled by a lost ship from earth, the planet developed into a feudal system dependent on psychic powers. Many of the stories revolve around the interaction of Darkover's psychic technology and the "scientific technology" of human space travelers. In her later works, Bradley included themes of women's rights and homosexuality, changing the simple adventure stories into more complex novels. Numerous short stories written by Bradley, other writers, and fans filled in blanks in the planet's history. These were collected into anthologies as well as in fanzines.

An image of Gray Lensman.

E. E. Smith.

First Lensman. New York: Pyramid Book, 1964.

E. E. Smith.

Gray Lensman. New York: Pyramid Books, 1965.

E. E. Smith.

Children of the Lens. New York: Pyramid Books, 1966.

First published in Astonishing Stories in the 1930s, the Lensman series is a serial science fiction space opera. The heroes are inventor-adventurers, who move through galaxies at lightening speed pursuing evildoers. The series is significant as the first science fiction novels conceived as a series and because it introduced many innovative concepts involving space flight and communications.

An image of Hitchhiker's Guide.

Douglas Adams.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Douglas Adams.

Mostly Harmless. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Douglas Adams.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy began as a science fiction comedy series created by Douglas Adams that debuted as a radio show on BBC Radio 4 in 1978. Over the next twenty-five years, the original idea was developed into a series of five books, several stage shows, a TV series, a computer game and several comic book adaptations. Adam's works, combining satire, adventure, wit and broad humor, continue to be popular with young adults and devotees of Monty Python.

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Last modified: 03/12/09