Friday Fun: A syllabus and book list for novice students of science fiction literature

Sep 24 2010 Published by under friday fun, science fiction

I'm a life-long fan of science fiction, mostly as a reader but occasionally as a book reviewer. Way back, when dinosaurs walked the earth, I even took a couple of science fiction literature classes.

And, as readers of this blog well know, I love nothing better than a good list of books.

So combining all those passions is a big win for me.

Take a look at this, from io9, A syllabus and book list for novice students of science fiction literature.

I'll list the books here, but please head over to the io9 post for the rationales for chosing each book.


There are a few things to keep in mind about this syllabus for SF 101: Introduction to Literature.

It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day). So you'll find a mix of old and new here, as well as fan favorites tucked in among more literary authors.

Back in the mists of time, I used to teach literature and American Studies at UC Berkeley, so I have some experience putting together course materials for university classes very much like one. (In fact, there are a few books on here that I used to teach.) What educators aim to do in overview courses is expose students to the broadest possible set of examples of a genre, not just the "canon." It is in this spirit that I chose the books on this list.

The original list is divided up into themes/sections, but I'm just doing a raw listing here. Another reason to head over to io9!

  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
  • A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • "At the Mountains of Madness," H.P. Lovecraft
  • Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Man In the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • The Female Man, Joanna Russ
  • I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
  • Neuromancer, by William Gibson
  • Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross
  • "Who Goes There," John W. Campbell
  • Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler
  • The Secret City, by Carol Emschwiller
  • Triplanetary, E.E. "Doc" Smith
  • Downbelow Station, C.J. Cherryh
  • The Sparrow, Maria Doria Russell
  • Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks
  • Orlando, Virgina Woolf
  • Stranger In A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  • Dhalgren, Samuel Delaney
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula LeGuin
  • Anathem, Neal Stephenson

I've read 16/24. How about you?

Also, really do check out the comments on the post -- any list like this is sure to generate some debate and this one is no exception.

16 responses so far

  • Birger Johansson says:

    It is disappointing that none of the titles adress the inherent problem of Contact: Opening a meaningful dialogue with entities of a completely different evolution, with alien brains and alien ways of thinking (some would say a meaningful dialogue is extremely unlikely).

    The entity of "Who Goes There" is truly alien, but only interacts as a predator interact with prey.

    The aliens of The Sparrow are superficially human-like but have differences that have catastrophic consequences for the survey team. Nevertheless, these aliens are still too similar to us to be credible.

    The obvious candidates for Contact novels would be one of several novels by Sanislaw Lem, especially Solaris (unfortunately only available in a bad English translation) or possibly His Master´s Voice or Fiasco. "Wayside Picnic" by the Strugatsky brothers also address the inherent opacity of alien motivations -in this case represented by the miraculous artefacts left behind.

    "Definitely Maybe" -another Strugatsky novel- address other philosophical questions, like how much a scientist must be prepared to sacrifice, and the nature of reality (the reality is even more fluid than in a Philip K. Dick novel).
    Humans interacting with less advanced societies are also covered by several Strugatsky novels, like "Hard to be a God".

    For "parallel worlds", there would be many novels to choose from, but my favourite is the "Merchant Family" series by Charles Stross.
    A general comment is that older "pulp-era" SF is not very enjoyable, often written by inexperienced writers, or writers sacrificing dialogue or characterisation for a rapid pace. Non-enthusiasts can easily be turned off.

  • andre3 says:

    I've only read five (but it's a good list for me to draw from). Four of which I think are great additions (Frankenstein, 1984, Brave New World, and Stranger...) but I can't fathom why Consider Phlebas is on there. I guess I'm not sure why people think this is a great book. Maybe someone here can explain it to me.

    I read it and felt as though it was a series of half hour TV episodes in book form with a very faint overarching storyline, until the last third of the book which was a fairly good conclusion to the weak story. Maybe if I read another Culture book I'd look back more fondly upon it.

    I'd prefer (from that late 80s early 90s era of books) something like Hyperion by Dan Simmons or Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

  • A.D. Pask-Hughes says:

    I prefer "The Gods Themselves" by Asimov, but I guess "I, Robot" is perhaps more suited to an introductory course; my guess is because of the film. Having said that, I'd have gone for "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Dick, but that is, of course, a far superior novel and film.

    No John Wyndham either. I get the sense that he's not often included within the sci-fi 'cannon', but his novels are the only sci-fi novels that non-sci-fi-loving friends of mine like.

    Other than that, no "Ender's Game"? "Left Hand of Darkness"? "Dune"? no Arthur C. Clarke? All this pretty much echoes the comments on the original post of course.

    One more: a distinct lack of Poe! I've seen book lists for courses in sci-fi, horror and detective fiction and those that don't include Poe far outweigh those that do.

  • andre3 says:

    The problem may be in the artificial classifications that they put on the site (first off, how is Dystopias/Utopias not just a sub-class of Political Commentary, especially when they start off describing Dhalgren as a dystopian story in the political grouping).

    A.D.P.H.: entirely correct with Dune and Arthur C. Clarke. One might have to suggest Hitchhiker's Guide... because of it's enormous influence on modern scifi. Ender's Game would be nice but I think Speaker for the Dead would be a better choice for the list (in the Aliens category). I thought it treated the clash of cultures in an interesting way and carried Ender's Game on to a logical extension.

  • stripey_cat says:

    I was surprised at the predominence of novels; for me, a huge variety of short stories are always among the first works I think of when discussing SF.

  • Andrew G. says:

    but I can't fathom why Consider Phlebas is on there.

    I suspect a bias towards choosing the nominally "first" book in a series (the same problem exists with Triplanetary, which is far from the best representative of the Lensman series).

  • Janne says:

    Why only US authors? Doesn't make it very comprehensive or representative of the genre.

    I'd at least have expected Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris" to be on the list, and Probable the Strugatskij brothers' "Roadside Picknick" as well. And that's just taking the very short step to Eastern Europe.

  • Andrew G. says:

    Only US authors? Several of the names on the list would take exception to that.

  • dizi izle says:

    "I've only read five (but it's a good list for me to draw from). Four of which I think are great additions (Frankenstein, 1984, Brave New World, and Stranger...) but I can't fathom why Consider Phlebas is on there. I guess I'm not sure why people think this is a great book. Maybe someone here can explain it to me. "
    yeah it's true...

  • andre3 says:

    So Andrew G., does the series get better? Is there another Culture novel you'd recommend?

  • E Rose says:

    11/24 for me, but, while I am an English teacher of 38 years, I readily admit I've only taught a few science fiction works at the introductory (high school) level and only 5 from your list above.

    I must agree with other posters, though - POE really NEEDS to be on here . . . and what about some Ray Bradbury?

    Fahreheit 451 is a popular high school read, but I like Martian Chronicles better - because it is approachable (even for a reader who does not identify as a "sci-fi fan") and because it works well on several levels, especially in American Literature classes. Despite Bradbury's somewhat negative spin on science (Cold war attitudes of the '50's), each story in Martian Chronicles "stands alone" and intertwines, and in retrospect, he was quite prophetic. Bradbury's short story "Usher II" in MC is just great fun . . . especially for us Poe afficianados!

  • TheBrummell says:

    Huh, only 5 for me (Frankenstein; Brave New World; 1984; Stranger In A Strange Land; The Dispossessed), though I'm currently about 1/3 of the way through Anathem, and I've read several stories derived from those listed by Campbell and Cherryh (got to get back to the sources, I guess).

    I agree with the above commenters about those books and authors conspicuous by their absence: Poe, Lem, Stross, Clarke, Bradbury... and a few that I really enjoy though I haven't decided if they'd be particularly suitable to an introduction to the genre list, such as the collaborations between Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, or the already-mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series.

    Food for thought, though, and maybe some motivation for me to spend more time staring at dead trees and less time scattering electrons.

  • Chris Winter says:


    Good point, especially with respect to Dhalgren. I wonder if they'd get through it before the course ended.

  • Chris Winter says:

    Well, it's a decent list. I can't criticize it too much, having read only 8 of the 24. (I essentially stopped reading fiction by about 1980.)

    But I tend to agree with the comments on io9 that many of the best and most influential titles were omitted.

    A few of my choices:

    Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

    Theodore Sturgeon, More than Human

    Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars and Childhood's End

    Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves

    John Wyndham, Re-birth

    Frank Herbert, Dune

    Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger), The Ballad of Lost C'Mell or Norstrilia

    Anything by R. A. Lafferty

    Clifford Simak, Way Station and A Choice of Gods

    Joe Haldeman, The Forever War or Mindbridge

    Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's

    Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

    James H. Schmitz, The Tuvela (aka The Demon Breed)

    Damon Knight, Rule Golden

    James Blish, Cities in Flight (a collection of four novels)

    Well, that's more than a few. I guess it's enough for now.

  • Andrew G. says:

    andre3 @10:

    In my opinion the Culture series does get better - of the early ones, The Player of Games is probably the easiest read and Use of Weapons the best if you can handle the anachronic order (a structural trick that Banks is possibly too fond of).

  • Hank Roberts says:

    Everything Chris Winter listed there.
    Gad, do kids nowadays still devour novels like those of us who used to stagger home from the public library with a dozen books at a time?

    If so, I'd add
    Brunner: Shockwave Rider; The Sheep Look Up.
    Patricia Anthony: Cold Allies.

    But if shorter is better, Leinster: make sure to include "A Logic Named Joe" (as a podcast from somewhere).

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