An Introduction To Science-fiction

A Basic Science Fiction Library:

The first year I [James Gunn] offered the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction, a teacher… asked me how many books a teacher should read in order to have a sound background for the teaching of science fiction. I said, offhand, about a hundred books and gave her a list…

I read a lot from that list, but notables in my mind are:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams. I wouldn’t read it a second time, but it’s often laugh-out-loud funny and silly. Don’t let the awful 2005 movie spoil the book for you.
  • The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I devoured this as a teenager. Asimov is famous for his Robot stories (creating the famous Three Laws of Robotics), but did you know that no robots appear in the The Foundation Trilogy.
  • A Case of Conscience by James Blish was one of the first science-fiction novels I read with a religious theme (i.e. whether a belief in God is necessary for a moral society).
  • The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame, Volume 2 collection edited by Ben Bova. Volume 1 was editied by Robert Silverberg in 1970, and I reread both every couple years. It’s subtitle is The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time.
  • Almost anything by Ray Bradbury, but Fahrenheit 451 and particular stories like The Crowd (from The October Country) are more memorable than others.
  • Ender’s Game (1999) by Orson Scott Card is about a boy being prepared to fight am interstellar war. I read it twice.
  • Arthur C. Clarke (the C is for Charles) is known for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he’s written other brilliant stories, including Rendezvous with Rama.
  • A lot of people know Harlan Ellison from the comic world, where he’s written lots of stories; but I think he’s more famous for his short stories (A Boy And His Dog, Manifesto in Onyx, etc.) and Dangerous Visions, a collection of stories he edited in the late sixties that many consider the start of a new era in science-fiction.
  • Flowers of Algerion by Daniel Keyes is a beautiful story about how a simple man becomes complicated, then simple again.
  • I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my teens, writing a paper for it in high school. I found it philosophical and adventurous. I haven’t read it since then, but I think I’ll tackle it again soon.
  • Robert Silverberg has been around forever (as long as Ellision, Clarke, and a few others), writing memorable short-stories and novels, including Dying Inside (1972), a story about a man who squanders his telepathic abilities.
  • City by Clifford Simak is about dogs; a city of dogs.
  • The Persistence of Vision by John Varley made me almost wish I was blind (although I almost am).
  • John Wyndham wrote Chrysalids, which many people had to read in school; but it IS brilliant, although not his best. Read Chocky. His short-stories deserve more appreciation, too.

That’s a small sampling of stuff I’ve read from that list. I know there are lots of excellent stuff I didn’t include above like Haldeman, Heinlein, Spider Robinson…

Novels that should be included on that list:

2 Replies to “An Introduction To Science-fiction”

  1. Because you knew I’d have an opinion on this… :)

    I disagree with the inclusion of Piers Anthony, but it’s mostly for personal taste issues (he writes about something in most of his books which I find distasteful. I’m not saying his books should be banned, but rather, approached with caution.)

    Ben Bova had a book of short stories I read back in high school. IIRC, the title was “The Promethians” Very good book.

    Philip Jose Farmer is underrated. Loved his stuff.

    Heinlein’s Stranger, Starship Troopers, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress should be required reading for anyone interested in political theory or philosophy.

    I’ve never been able to finish a Moorcock novel, but still, it’s classic new-wave fantasy.

    I can’t say enough about Terry Pratchett. Good Omens (which was co-written with Neil Gaiman) is a good place to start, and the rest of the Discworld books are brilliant.

    My English prof in 1st year sucked all the good out of Frankenstein. Darn him to heck!

    The John Wyndham I loved was Day of the Triffids. Scared me to bits (and that was only a few years ago)

    Noteable exclusions:
    Anne McCaffery – the Pern series is a classic.

    Stephen R. Donaldson – Lord Foul’s Bane is a widely read series; I can’t recommend it since I can’t get past the first book without throwing it at someone. But I read the Mordant’s Need series almost every year, and the Gap series is an exercise in extremism.

    Neil Gaiman – How could he be left off the list? The Sandman graphic novels are groundbreaking and fabulous, and his novels are neatly wrapped packages of goodness.

    Nalo Hopkins – Jamaican-Canadian who writes wonderful short stories which are strongly influenced by Caribbean culture.

  2. I haven’t read much from that list. Not many novels except for some by Arthur C. Clarke. Countless short stories. Everything by Harlan Ellison and John Wyndam (The Chysalids is his best). Hitchhiker’s bored me. The Foundation Trilogy didn’t grab me. Flowers for Algerion is good, though like too many science fiction classics, the idea of the story is better than the writing of the story. The Persistence of Vision is excellent. Asimov’s Robot stories are cute and frightening. Almost everything by Ray Bradbury is excellent. I’ve never read and probably never will read any numbered books.

    And as Harlan Ellison will tell you, there’s a significant difference between science fiction and “sci-fi.” Go to and ask him.

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