I’ve been wanting to do a summary/review of the first 10 novels on my list, detailing some of my main thoughts on each one, for a while now, and offer a ranking of them. So here goes nothing!
Spanning the 1800s and early 1900s, these novels take us from the depths of ourselves to the great external beyond. From the within to the without.
Hopefully you’ll feel inspired to read one or two as well.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favourite of the first 10*, is a beautifully written story about human nature and the presence of good and evil in each of us. Henry Jekyll, ever the mad scientist, succeeds at separating his good side from his bad side, the latter manifesting in the physical form of Edward Hyde. One of the most interesting points in the descriptions of Hyde is that nobody can quite pinpoint what is wrong with him, why they feel so uneasy around him. Jekyll’s own theory is that Hyde is a creation of pure evil and others could subconsciously feel this. It’s a testament, or commentary, on our two fundamental sides and how our instincts can guide us in understanding others. There is something in us that can immediately grasp the core of other people even if we are not consciously aware of it. We are connected in a fundamental way that is hidden beneath the veil of our everyday lives. Jekyll and Hyde is my favourite of the first 10 for it’s writing, character development, and interesting themes.
In Frankenstein, we learn about the consequences of creation and of the tragedy of being the only one of your kind. Frankenstein’s creation, whom I’ve called Jack in previous posts, finds himself abandoned by his creator, trying to find his way in the world only to be tormented and shunned after every attempt at human connection. He is not unlike us at all. All we want in this life is connection: connection to others; connection to a higher power. It is the most fundamental human need. Through Jack, we can understand what it means to be human. This exploration of our humanity and the fact that Frankenstein is arguably the first great science fiction novel are what cement it’s spot in this ranking.
Also one of my favourites, Brave New World invites us to ask ourselves, “Is the trade off worth it?” In the story, everyone is genetically engineered to fit into a certain social caste. They are happy in their place and want for nothing. At the same time, there is a complete lack of emotion, culture, art, and independent thought. These things have been totally removed from society in order to preserve happiness and stability. The thesis of the World Controllers of course being that the trade off is worth it. This is a question I find myself coming back to time and again, which, I think, is part of the reason why Brave New World has been so enduring.
*I will admit that my personal tastes have influenced this ranking. So if I were to try to be even more objective I would switch Brave New World with Jekyll and Hyde, placing the former in first place.
This play about robots uprising against their human overlords is an important turning point for the history of science fiction, so it must be ranked high. In it we get the first mention of the word “robot” as well as discussions about the difference between humans and robots, slave labour, and the never-ending engine of production. In the play, robots complete all the menial tasks humans want to avoid, but then they become self-aware. It’s at that point that they go from being robots to being slaves, hence the revolt. We can learn a lot from this play about our own inclinations to measure progress by production, and the ethics of creating sentient beings for the labour they can provide. The series Westworld and Star Trek: The Next Generation have also tackled this issue. I highly recommend R.U.R to anyone interested in the topic of robots.
Rounding out the top five is The Time Machine. In it we get the story of the Time Traveller, who journeys to the extremely distant future and finds himself in a post-utopian society. All the needs of the people have been met, rendering innovation and creative thought obsolete. As a result, the Eloi are a population of airheads. In addition to the exciting story and adventures of the Time Traveller, I find this point the most compelling in the story. Is a utopia even possible? If all of our needs were met, how could we prevent ourselves from devolving into the Eloi? I think the answer is in work and goals. If we have something to work towards, if we keep learning, then we’ll be okay. The Time Machine is a classic and belongs on every list of must-read science fiction.
The War of the Worlds is a necessary classic. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and entertaining. It’s also the first book on my list to deal with aliens. H. G. Wells wrote the War of the Worlds in 1897. So we’ve been thinking about alien life for at least 121 years. What’s interesting is that even though WotW is a classic alien-invasion disaster epic, it extends a lot of understanding towards the aliens, Martians in this case. The narrator and other characters are not the least bit surprised that aliens are invading. Of course, it’s a surprise because nobody was expecting it, but they realize that they are like ants to the Martians. They understand that they are experiencing a kind of retributive justice, and so there is no personal hostility towards them. I find this much more gripping than some of our modern-day disaster flicks.
In Journey to the Center of the Earth, we learn of a scientist’s resolve and determination to go where no man has gone before, into the depths of this planet we call home. We feel the spirit of adventure and discovery, of advancing mankind’s knowledge. And truly, it’s a delightful story.
The first in C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is also the best. It’s the first time we experience space travel in my list and once again are introduced to an alien race that we come to love and understand. I absolutely love that in this novel and War of the Worlds the main characters do their best to understand the aliens. This, of course, is a good lesson we can apply to our fellow man. We are also witness to the terrible ideology of exploitation colonialism, another lesson we can take away from the novel.
I wasn’t crazy about Lost Horizon as a story per se, hence it’s low ranking, but I did still find interesting themes within its pages. This story about four travellers who are kidnapped and taken to a lamasery in Tibet discusses the idea of paradise, and belief and doubt. Throughout, we learn about the secrets of the lamasery but then are harshly brought back to reality, questioning what we just learned. As a reader, I experienced a similar change of heart as the main character. His belief turns to doubt, causing him to turn his back on the whole enterprise, a move which he later sorely regrets. Indeed, once someone pokes holes in our ideal vision of something, it’s extremely difficult to return to that state of innocence. This, I think, is at the heart of Lost Horizon.
I’m just going to come right out and say it. My least favourite novel of the first 10, obviously. The intense exposition and over-description really ruins what would otherwise be an exciting novel. Here, we are introduced to the idea of ancient aliens on Earth and the psychological consequences of exploring unknown territories. But the extensive prose really ruins it, and I had to force myself to get through it.
So that’s the first 10 for you in the order that I recommend them. If you are interested in reading any of these classics but find yourself short on time, then I recommend sticking to the top 6 I’ve listed. No science fiction education is complete without them.
And there you have it.
Have a great day!