Key classics of fantasy and science fiction

Once upon a time, no-one was considered truly educated unless they knew Shakespeare’s plays. More recently, but still not recently, an influential critic published a really big list of books which he thought were necessary for an understanding of western culture – sorry: Western Culture.

My ambitions are much smaller. All I claim is that anyone who doesn’t know the books on my list has missed key works of fantasy and science fiction, so they have missed some great books and will miss innumerable cultural references.

Most of them were written in the middle of last century and a few are not so relevant today but all of them have shaped SF and some, believe it or not, our whole society: ‘Big Brother’, for instance, comes from 1984.

Bold text is used for books that became big movies, even if the movie had a different title.

Broad cultural significance

(Roughly in order of importance.)

  • George Orwell: 1984 (1949) (totalitarianism)
  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932) (dystopia, free will)
  • George Orwell: Animal Farm (1945) (communism)
  • Neville Shute: On the Beach (1957) (nuclear holocaust)
  • Anthony Burgess: Clockwork Orange (1962) (youth violence, brainwashing)
  • Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) (religion)
  • Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (gender equality)
  • Harry Harrison: Make Room! Make Room! (1966) (population crisis, eco-disaster; filmed as Soylent Green)
  • Aldous Huxley: Island (1962) (utopia)
Seminal works of Fantasy
  • Tolkien: Lord of the Rings (1955)
  • Le Guin: Earthsea series (1968 onwards) (including the sequels to the original trilogy)
Seminal works of SF
  • Asimov: Foundation trilogy (1951-53) (not the sequels!)
  • Herbert: Dune (galactic empires) (1965 onwards) (filmed as Dune and, adapted, as Star Wars)
  • Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) (filmed as Bladerunner, one of 15 movies based on his work which are listed here on IMDB)
  • Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978 onwards)
  • Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park (1990) (genetic engineering) (more movies, some from his own books)
Books I was reluctant to leave off my list
  • Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest (1972) (colonialism) (the primary source of Avatar)
  • Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) (censorship)
  • Ballard: The Drowned World (1962) (global warming)
  • Larry Niven: Ringworld (1970) (hard SF)

There is an older stratum, too: Dracula, Frankenstein, Lovecraft, Poe, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are all foundational to the genre. They are household names and are freely referenced and recycled by modern writers as diverse as Winterson, Pratchett and Stross but are hardly worth reading except as period pieces.