‘1984’, George Orwell (1949)
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)Brave New World was written between World War I and World War II, the height of an era of technological optimism in the West. Huxley picked up on that optimism and created the dystopian world of his novel to criticize it. Much of the anxiety that drives Brave New World is due to a widespread belief in technology as a futuristic remedy for the problems caused by disease and war . Unlike his fellow citizens, Huxley felt that such confidence was naive and decided to challenge these ideas by imagining them taken to the extreme. ‘The Time Machine’, HG Wells (1895) It is considered one of the first works of science fiction and the pioneer of the subgenre of travel in time. The novel is a fable , as well as a scientific parable, in which the two societies of Wells’s own period (the upper classes and the working classes) are reformulated as equally ‘degenerate’ beings. ‘Degeneration’ is evolution in reverse: Wells represents a world in which human struggle is doomed.
‘Fahrenheit 451’, Ray Bradbury (1953)
‘The War of the Worlds’, HG Wells (1897)The novel details a catastrophic conflict between humans and extraterrestrial ‘ Martians ‘. It is considered a historical work of science fiction and has inspired numerous adaptations and imitations. Questions of order and hierarchy are at the center of The War of the Worlds. When Martians first land in England, they are not perceived as a threat. Most men and women, in the suburbs of London and the city, continue to go about their business. Even after the Martians kill multiple people, daily life is not significantly disturbed. In the face of imminent attack, the English people cling to established regimes and existing social structures. ‘Contact’, Carl Sagan (1985) Sagan , an astronomer who was linked to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, became one of the most famous popularizers of the 20th century. The hit novel Contact , which was adapted for the screen a year after Sagan’s death in 1996, was Sagan’s best-known foray into fiction, bringing scientific principles to mainstream entertainment. The main character, astronomer Ellie Arroway, detects a signal from a nearby star, a repeating sequence of the first 261 prime numbers, which she deduces could only be sent from an intelligent civilization.
2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke
‘Ring World’, Larry Niven (1970)This series of novels proposes an alternative universe , an artificial world with a surface area three million times larger than that of Earth. This universe would have been built in the shape of a ring by beings called Pak, and it is inhabited by a number of different species of evolved hominids.
‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’, Philip K. Dick (1968)Adapted for the cinema as the celebrated film Blade Runner (1982), the illusion centers on artificial creatures dealing with what is authentic in a dystopian future.
‘I, robot’, Isaac Asimov (1940–1959)This is a collection of nine short stories by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who imagines the development of ‘positronic’ (human-like, with a form of artificial intelligence) robots and wrestles with the moral implications of technology. The stories originally appeared in science fiction magazines between 1940 and 1950, the year they were first published together in book form. Asimov’s treatment of robots as ethically programmed rather than marauding metal monsters was highly influential in the development of science fiction.
‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’, Jules VerneIt is the second book in his popular Voyages Extraordinaires series (1863-1910), which contains novels that combine scientific fact with adventure fiction and laid the foundation for science fiction. Axel Lidenbrock, the teenage storyteller, lives in Hamburg, Germany, with his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, an impetuous and determined geology professor. Verne’s story , set in May 1863, begins when the latter rushes home to show Axel his latest acquisition: a runic manuscript by renowned Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson.
‘Foundation’, Isaac Asimov (1951–1953)The famous trilogy is one of his earliest and best-known works, which began when he was only 21 years old. It helped redefine the science fiction genre with its perfect blend of science fact with fiction . Foundation is established in the future, when the world is barely remembered and humans have colonized the galaxy.
‘Slaughterhouse Five’, Kurt Vonnegut (1969)This is a peculiarly structured (non-linear) pacifist novel that combines science fiction with historical facts, in particular Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, during the Allied bombing of that city in early 1945. The novel is considered a modern classic. ‘Neuromancer’, William Gibson (1984) This work inaugurated the cyberpunk movement within the science fiction literary genre, and is a reflection on a computer-driven dystopia. Neuromancer tells the story of its protagonist, Case, an unemployed hacker who is hired by a mysterious new employer named Armitage.
‘A Clockwork Orange’, Anthony Burgess (1962)Set in sad dystopian England, it is the first-person account of a juvenile delinquent who undergoes state-sponsored psychological rehabilitation for his aberrant behavior. The novel satirizes extreme political systems that are based on opposing models of humanity’s perfectibility or incorrigibility. Written in a futuristic slang vocabulary invented by Burgess, partly by adaptation of Russian words, it was his most original and best-known work. ‘Ubik’, Philip K. Dick (1969) This science fiction novel, published in 1969, deals with the multiverse : a variety of realities, each within another; and reflects on philosophical concepts such as life after death.
‘I am a legend’, Richard Matheson (1954)This is the story of the last man left in a world populated by a kind of vampire monsters . The work was later adapted for several successful films. This theme had already been explored by the author: his debut as a professional writer was the terro story Nacido de hombre y mujer (1950), which deals with a mutant child born to normal parents. The behavior of the boy’s parents, however, leads readers to wonder if the latter were not, in fact, the real monsters. ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) The book, set on an icy planet called Gethen, or Winter, is a vehicle for Le Guin’s Taoist view of the complementary nature of all relationships. Gethen is inhabited by a race of androgynous humans who can change sex roles during periods of monthly heat, so at different times any individual can be a mother or father. The plot is interspersed with anthropological commentary on the Ghettons, as well as excerpts from their own folklore and philosophy, and follows the exploits of Genly Ai, the first ambassador to Gethen of the Ekumen (the league of known worlds), who with the help of Estraven, a sympathetic Gethenian, attempts to bring the peoples of Gethen to the Ekumen. ‘Portico’, Frederik Pohl (1977) It is the first part of a tetralogy about some mysterious extraterrestrial beings: the heechee. Explore the exploitation, by humans, of an alien technology found within an abandoned space base within an asteroid . ‘Red Mars’, Kim Stanley Robinson (1992) This is the first part of the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) that chronicles the settlement and terraforming of the planet Mars through the points of view of a wide variety of characters, spanning nearly two centuries. Meanwhile, the Earth suffers from overpopulation and ecological disasters. ‘Dune’, Frank Herbert (1965) It is the first part of a successful dystopian trilogy. The story begins 10,000 years in the future, in our own galaxy , in a great galactic empire of feudal structure. ‘The Sirens of Titan’, by Kurt Vonnegut (1959) In this novel, Vonnegut envisioned a scenario in which the entire history of the human race is viewed as an accident in the search on an alien planet for a spare part for a spaceship. ‘Snow Crash’, Neal Stephenson (1992) The novel is about a future globalized society that has abandoned conventional land-based government and reformed along the lines of electronic cults . ‘Solaris’, Stanislaw Lem (1961) Solaris is a deeply philosophical work on contact with a completely alien intelligence : a sentient ocean that surrounds planets. The novel was adapted to the cinema in two films, from 1972 and 2002.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Margaret Atwood (1985)The book, set in New England in the near future, posits a Christian fundamentalist theocratic regime in the former United States that emerged in response to a fertility crisis. All women are assigned to various classes: the chaste childless wives of the commanders; the housekeeper Marthas; and the reproductive servants, who deliver their descendants to wives and are called by the names of their assigned commanders. It was adapted to the cinema and also in the format of a television series, with a very good reception.