Science fiction tends to get stereotyped as mindless escapism or overly complex and full of hard-to-understand jargon. But at its core, great science fiction offers a new perspective on what it means to be human. By creating fantastical- or futuristic-seeming worlds full of compelling characters, sci-fi writers can take a step back from the world we actually live in, in order to make grand observations about it.
These are four great science fiction books not only broke new ground for the genre, but they inspired countless readers to take a deeper look at their own lives and thoughts.
Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is cutting-edge? Actually, yes! Even though Frank Herbert’s classic was published in 1965, its message holds as much clout today as it did back then — and maybe even more.
Chronicling the story of the Atreides family and their burgeoning stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is as much an action story as it is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of life, awareness, and political oppression. Herbert’s strength as a storyteller came from his world-building; he wove meticulous detail into his stories, best exemplified by the rich ecology of Arrakis itself.
There’s an obvious current of environmentalism running through the book, something that modern audiences will identify with. But it’s not a preachy story, or one that’s hard to follow. It’s an engaging novel that deserves its place in the pantheon of classics, even 55 years after its publication.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
To say that House of Leaves defies convention is an understatement. This book is the most contentious entry in this list, so consider yourself warned.
The story told in Danielewski’s House of Leaves isn’t controversial in its own right. A family moves into a new house which soon begins exhibiting strange characteristics, and as time goes on, the oddities compound. What starts out as a simple story about a family evolves into a study of the human condition, with our protagonists slowly breaking down in the face of a horror they can’t understand.
What’s so divisive about House of Leaves is the way the story is told. The story is layered in a narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative format, jumping back and forth as needed. This is confusing enough, but Danielewski didn’t just experiment with narrative styles. He experimented with design presentation.
Unlike traditional novels, this story has academic footnotes. They sometimes provide additional context, while others are just random musings. These footnotes often have footnotes of their own, many of which take up entire pages. Some pages are so densely packed with text that they’re nearly impossible to read. Some pages have only one word.
These stylistic design choices create a mixed view of Danielewski as an author, with some hailing him as an artistic genius and some calling him a pretentious weirdo. But whatever you believe, this is a story that has to be seen to be understood.
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
Time’s Arrow is more of a historical drama with a sci-fi twist than a science fiction book proper. The narrative follows the life of Dr. Tod Friendly… only told in reverse. The story begins with Dr. Friendly’s death — immediately followed by his resurrection and retelling of the final stages of his life.
As the book progresses, we learn more about his relationships, his career, and what brought him where he was — complete with gut-wrenching turns and revelations on nearly every page, each of which will make you want to immediately reread the preceding chapter.
Do yourself a favor and don’t look up reviews ahead of time for this one. There are a few narrative twists that work best when you don’t see them coming. Overall, it’s a non-traditional story that will give you some great food for thought on how morality and forgiveness relate to the unstoppable flow of time.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas isn’t just one story. It’s a series of tales connected by themes, often described as a Russian nesting doll of narratives. The overarching tale includes six different stories, taking the reader from the 19th century to the modern day and through a corporate-controlled dystopian future that hits a little too close to home.
The book has something for everyone, from creative inspiration to modern-day espionage to post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but the varied settings are merely the medium for the message. Cloud Atlas takes on big subjects like the universality of human existence and the repeating cycles of oppression, disillusionment and hope that govern us.
Unfortunately, the incredible Cloud Atlas novel was overshadowed in the public eye by its big-budget Hollywood adaptation. If you were less than impressed with the movie, you aren’t alone. This isn’t a story that translates well to film. But through the written word, it’s a great journey across time and space that makes it well worth a spot on any sci-fi fan’s shelf.
Transcendent science fiction
It’s been said that science fiction is more deserving of respect when it weaves relevant social commentary into its fantastical stories. All of the above novels certainly fit that bill. Each story does a brilliant job creating a world for its characters to play in while revealing hard truths about the reader. These aren’t light novels, but they’re well worth your time.