At some point, I set out to read a representative sample of all the “great” writers of science fiction, so I could feel reasonably well-educated in the genre. If you haven’t read a lot of science fiction, I recommend this exercise. It provides a grounding so you can learn where the well-worn tropes originated and appreciate it when today’s writers are doing something new. However, it can be troublesome to read older science fiction, especially if you’re a woman.
Classic science fiction is notoriously bad at portraying women as characters, or even human beings. Particularly egregious offenders, considering how influential they were on the genre, are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven. I don’t necessarily think that these writers held misogynist views. Instead, they demonstrate a huge blind spot where women are concerned.
Even when writing about futuristic or advanced societies, these writers often fail to depict women as anything other than subordinate. Women are generally relegated to the role of secretary (“girl assistants,” as Clarke puts it so charmingly in 2001: A Space Odyssey), housewife or concubine. Often, the female characters are absent altogether; I believe there is only one female character in Asimov’s seminal book, Foundation. Women rarely, if ever, occupy roles equal to men as scientists, politicians or leaders. When they are present, the authors tend to fall back on stereotypes to create their characters; female characters are generally helpless, passive, shrewish, sexually manipulative, overly emotional, in need of protection or rescue, or sexual objects devoid of personality.
This portrayal of women can make early science fiction seem very dated. If you are able to read classic sci-fi in context, then you’ll enjoy the entertaining stories and big ideas. But if you find the portrayal of women consistently grating, as I do, there will probably come a time when you’re ready to call it good and move on. Fortunately, today’s science fiction writers offer a much wider range of perspectives, and it’s easier to find books with believable characters who are women, gay, people of color, people from diverse backgrounds and people with disabilities. Here’s a good list on LibraryThing to get started; however, not many of these books can be considered classics, yet.
With that in mind, I’m offering a list of 20 classic science fiction works for the absolute newbie. Dedicated aficionados will have already read most of the suggestions here, I’m sure. For the purposes of this list, I’m defining a “classic” as published before 1980 and having lasting influence. (I’ve also left off purely post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, as they could comprise their own list, so no Huxley or Orwell here.) Fourteen of these books were written by white male authors, but this reflects the reality of the genre as it developed.This list is in chronological order, and if you read them that way, you’ll get a good sense of how the genre evolved over time. Notably, the first science fiction novel was written by a woman.
I’ve suggested only one book by each author in order to provide a broad sampling of themes and tropes. If you like any of these selections, I encourage you to seek out more books by that author (many are the first book in a series). I’d also appreciate any suggestions in the comments of more diverse writers to add to the list.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
- The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)
- Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
- The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
- Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
- Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
- The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
- Gateway by Frederik Pohl (1977)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)