Hi there sci-fi readers,
In this post I’ll be ranking books 11-20 on my list. In a previous post, I ranked the first 10 sci-fi novels on my list, with my favourite being book 3, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and my least favourite being book 9, At the Mountains of Madness.
Keep reading to see how I’ve ranked the next ten on my list. Though I’ve tried to keep things as objective as possible, I’m sure some of this ranking is given to biases when it comes to writing style and character development, for example.
Let’s hop to it and I hope you’ll feel inspired to read some of these afterwards!
The mind is man’s last refuge. But in 1984, the party members of the superstate Oceania are robbed of this safe space. Winston Smith, a member of the party, starts thinking for himself, and of course that’s where all his troubles begin. 1984 is that famous work by Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell, that introduced us to the ideas of Big Brother, the Thought Police and Doublethink. It follows Winston as he starts thinking for himself, specifically anti-party ideas, and falls in love, which is illegal, all of which culminate in his torture and re-education to accept and love Big Brother.
This book is a must-read. Not just in the sci-fi canon, but in literature in general. It’s a warning sign of what can happen when we embrace ideologies that force us to think in ways that we know are contrary to reality. (See boots example in my review of the novel.) Of course, we’ve seen how communism plays out in real life as well, in terms of surveillance states and not being allowed to say anything critical of the party and then the next day no one ever heard from you again.
I have a line in my novel, which I’m currently editing, that goes, “The only reason to enforce perfection so much is to hide a much greater imperfection.” In most cases, this imperfection is simply the fact of imperfection itself. In 1984, the Party wants to keep control. Why? Who knows. Maybe for a utopian ideal. But as we know, utopias tend to be dystopias at their hearts. The Party wants to seem perfect so it can retain power. If it were shown to be imperfect, it would lose its grip over the people.
But I degress. 1984 is also well-written, illustrates character development, and is a well-structured story. Like its dystopian twin Brave New World, it’s a great read and presents a state of affairs we must consciously avoid.
I, Robot is one of my favourite books on my list. It’s a series of shorts that takes the form of an interview between a journalist and Dr. Susan Calvin, robopsychologist for US Robots & Mechanical Men Corp. Each story takes on a different aspect of the Three Laws of Robotics and how intelligent and developed the robots are. It’s an absolute must-read when it comes to the sci-fi canon.
The main reason why I, Robot is so good is because it’s an honest look at the ethics of artificial intelligence. Both our creation of AI and how they would act in our world. One thing I really like about the Three Laws, for example, is that Isaac Asimov conceived of them because he believed that’s what we’d actually do if we created such mechanical men, as opposed to the common plot of robots gaining sentience and overthrowing humans.
“Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? Or is knowledge to be used as itself a barrier to the dangers it brings?” –Isaac Asimov
I often think about what makes a story good. Though there are, of course, many factors, one thing that make a story great is how true and honest it is. Neil Gaiman has said, “Fiction is a lie that tells true things.” If your story is a genuine exploration of a theme, readers will resonate with it. I, Robot, though a series about robots, has stood the test of time because it’s a genuine exploration of ethics, AI, and the Three Laws.
Reason is a short story that is actually part of the book I, Robot I mention above. So you can take it as part of number 2 or number 3 on this ranking list. This short story is about a robot named QT-1 who reasons about his existence in a Cartesian kind of way, which ends up being quite hilarious. It’s a really great little story that I can’t recommend enough. You can read it here.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is another classic even outside the genre of science fiction. It tells the tale of Guy Montag, a firefighter who burns books and starts fires rather than putting them out. Like 1984’s Winston Smith, he doesn’t really think about the ethics of his job or about anything in particular until he meets a woman named Clarisse. Then he starts realizing that maybe burning books is not really a good thing to do.
Like 1984 and Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 presents a state of affairs we should actively avoid. The world it seems has succumbed to a constant numbing of itself. People rarely have face to face interactions and are constantly watching tv or listening to their headphones/seashells. In addition, they’ve come to believe that books don’t really contain anything valuable at all. It also presents that *false* dichotomy of being happy and ignorant, or being knowledgeable and unhappy.
Anyhoo, 451 is really well written and a creative story about censorship, mass media, and a mindless versus a book-filled life. It reminds me of my recent departure from social media to focus more on reclaiming my attention and engaging in deep work.
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester is a precrime sci-fi police procedural/crime type story about an unsympathetic titan of industry, Ben Reich, who wants to get away with the first premeditated murder in 79 years. However, in his world, there are a group of psychic people called Espers who work in all areas of society, and ecause of them it’s impossible to plan a crime and get away with it. This story is seemingly a precursor to Minority Report, which also centers around the idea of precrime and justice. The Demolished Man was also the very first book to win a Hugo Award.
I highly recommend this book for its fast-paced fun storytelling, its look at the really interesting concept of precrime, and its set up of a good thematic question: will Ben Reich get away with it?
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is a series of shorts that explore the human effects of colonizing the red planet. Like I, Robot, it’s an interesting and genuine look at what moving to Mars would mean. Not just the physical life on Mars, but how it would affect us psychologically. Indeed, those are the best stories in the compilation. Coupled with Bradbury’s excellent writing style, Chronicles is a worthwhile read about how life on Mars was conceived of in the ’50s.
I’m sure many readers of this post will wonder why I’ve put Foundation at number 7 in this ranking and not higher. I understand it’s a staple and epic of science fiction, and to be fair, I haven’t read the whole series yet, just the first book, but I still think this is the right place for it.
Foundation details the fall of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s aim to preserve all of mankind’s knowledge through the creation of the Foundation. It’s told in five parts, each of which take place at a different point in the future, revolving around the fate of the Foundation.
So the thing about Foundation is that, at least in this novel of the series, there’s very little character development. So while a lot happens to the Foundation and around the Foundation, it being a character in itself, because the book is told in five sections, we never really get to know anyone well enough to care about them and thus, to care about the Foundation. Maybe someone will disagree with me, and I totally get it. Isaac Asimov is a great writer and the book is written very well, but because the main character is the Foundation (and maybe Hari Seldon), after I finished it I didn’t really feel compelled to keep reading.
There are a lot of really interesting themes in Foundation but I’ve put it at this positing in my ranking because the stories above are both well-written and have good characters and character development. And while I, Robot and The Martian Chronicles are compliations of short stories, the best stories in each of them are character-focused, really drawing the reader in.
But as I mentioned in my review, I don’t think Asimov’s intention was to write a character-development-focused story. The main character is clearly the Foundation and the idea of seeking to preserve all human knowledge. It is good, that’s undeniable, just not my favourite.
The last three books in this ranking are all Heinlein stories and I have mixed feelings about them. Farmer in the Sky I really enjoyed and recommend it as an example of good work by Heinlein. It’s about one boy’s adventure in relocating to the Jovian moon of Gannymede with his family and their struggles to create a homestead for themselves, which requires terraforming the land. This was a good story that was compelling the whole way through.
Red Planet is a similar story, about a young boy and his family relocating to Mars to escape Earth’s bureaucracy. It has some great descriptions about the Martian landscape as Heinlein is no doubt a talented writer, but it also doesn’t feature any character developement and really drags on, which made it a challenge to get through.
We also have to remember that Heinlein’s main audience during the Golden Age of science fiction was young boys reading these stories in science fiction magazines. So he wrote a lot of adventure stories featuring young protagonists and I don’t think the idea here was to necessarily show great character development. For many people growing up with science fiction, Heinlein was/is their go-to guy, and it makes total sense. The stories are always fun adventures. But reading them now, at least for me, is not so great because I just don’t connect with his writing style (which is not to say that it’s not good or doesn’t have merit.)
So, Space Cadet I didn’t even finish because it dragged on and on. It too is supposed to be an adventure story about a kid going through the Patrol Academy to become, I assume, a space cadet. But the over-description and over-exposition really killed it for me and I put the novel down without finishing it. I had the same problem with a story later on my list by Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, which though it’s a classic I couldn’t finish because it just dragged on and on, ruining an otherwise really interesting concept.
I understand Heinlein is a classic sci-fi author as well, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his works that come later on my list, but I hope they’re structured a bit better with better pacing.
So there you have it, my ranking of books 11-20 on my list. I hope you’ll check out some of these classics as I continue on my journey of reading the best sci-fi of all time.