This six-part series is intended to guide new science fiction readers toward books that they may find enjoyable. Here's what's on tap: 

Part 6: A Reading Trip Through the History of Science Fiction

Yet another approach to reading science fiction, for the more scholarly minded, is to experience how sf has evolved over time. Literature is often said to be an ongoing conversation among writers, where any given story is a reaction to stories that an author has read elsewhere. If that's that case, then it's illustrative to start at the beginning of that conversation.

The selection of books below cover a span of nearly 200 years. It should take you considerably less time to read them. Since literature is a reflection of the times in which it was written, the language, cultural mores and worldviews in the following books may be quite different from what you see in more modern literature. But then, that's the point of this particular journey, isn't it? Let's get started...

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)

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Shelly's story of Man playing God is largely considered to be the first science-fiction novel ever written; it was unlike anything that came before it and had definite underpinnings in science. While the novel's gothic tone steered most film portrayals towards the horror side of mainstream awareness, science-fiction aficionados proudly proclaim this as their own.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

This is a novel that showed that science-fiction could have something to say beyond the surface story being told in its pages. In this case, the Martian invasion could be said to be a reaction to the British imperialism of that time. Indeed, many of Wells' scientific romances are social commentary about the "then and there."

 

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)

This novel epitomizes science-fiction's pulp roots. Burroughs' first Barsoom tale (10 sequels followed) is a planetary romance, where the focus is on an adventure on another world and not necessarily on the minutia of, say, explaining how the hero arrived there. 

 

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Science fiction experienced a Golden Age in the 1940s and ’50s that saw sf evolve into stories that seriously considered the sociological impact of a story's premise. Foundation, which depicts the rise and fall of an empire, was written by one of the premiere authors of the Golden Age. (Others included Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt)

 

Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)

This groundbreaking short fiction anthology was the American answer to the British New Wave movement—a period that featured writing characterized by a high degree of experimentation. 

 

The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1975)

This novel, which depicts four alternate worlds and four alternate versions of the protagonist, explores feminist issues and stands as a perfect example of how sf (even sf set in the future) can be used to reflect the present human condition.

 

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (1980)

Wolfe's far-future story about a man exiled from a guild of torturers reads like fantasy; a successful blend that, in Wolfe's capable hands, serves as proof that sf can have as much style, meaning and depth as any kind of literature.

 

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Stephenson's post-cyberpunk novel is adored by legions of sf fans for good reason: it is both a celebration and examination of hacker culture, and a whip-smart one at that.

 

River of Gods by Ian McDonald (2004)

Not only is this novel full of beautifully written science-fictional ideas, it's also a serious prognostication of the future of a non-Western country—in this case, India.

 

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2010)

Science fiction novels can be socially relevant, too. In this post-oil, future Thailand, calories become the new energy currency amid power-hungry corporations while an artificial girl struggles to prove that she's human.

 

Well, that concludes our roadmap on how to get started reading science fiction. I hope this series of articles has presented you with some reading choices that pique your interest. If you are an sf first-timer and read one of the suggested titles in this series, please share your thoughts and let us know what you thought. Until then, happy reading!

John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.