We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and trying to stay socially distant, so it’s a great opportunity to spend time with a classic novel. That doesn’t mean you have to plow through War and Peace to feel like you’re getting some culture. Here are some famous (and lesser-known) quick-to-read stories that helped define modern science fiction.
We’ve put together a list of eight books and short stories you should consider adding to your reading list. They’re a great way to grow your knowledge of the evolution of sci-fi, and have some interesting tidbits to throw around at your next gathering (or video chat). All of these books are under 300 pages, with a few of them being short stories that you can finish in an hour or two, and all of them are important milestones.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
If you haven’t read Mary Shelley’s ode to genetic engineering, now’s the perfect opportunity. This horror classic tells the story of a doctor who fuses dead body parts together to create life, resulting in “Frankenstein’s Monster.” What’s great about Frankenstein is how it isn’t Dr. Frankenstein’s story. He’s basically the villain. It’s about this created person trying to find their own identity, but their inability to escape persecution leads them down a darker path. It’s available at Barnes & Noble and, of course, many local bookstores.
“The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920)
This powerful short story from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil is considered one of the building blocks of Afrofuturism. It’s about a Black working man named Jim Davis who survives a comet that kills almost everyone in New York with a poisoned gas—except for Julia, a wealthy white woman. Through their experiences, Julia’s racism and privilege are challenged. But it doesn’t take long for the harshness of their reality to kick back in. You can read the short story for free here.
Eugenia (esbozo novelesco de costumbres futuras) by Eduardo Urzáiz Rodríguez (1919)
Eugenia is a sci-fi novel from Mexican author Eduardo Urzaiz and is considered one of the lesser-known gems of speculative fiction. Taking place in 2218, Eugenia presents a post-war world where countries have dissolved into different confederacies. In Villautopia, citizens are drafted into breeding programs, with both men and women having the ability to carry embryos. Written a decade before Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Eugenia explored the dangers of eugenics and state-controlled reproduction. It was translated into English in 2016, and you can find out more about that version here.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Hey, if you’re wondering whether we already live in a technological dystopia, all you’ve gotta do is see how much Ray Bradbury predicted. Fahrenheit 451 takes place in a future where all reading is forbidden—replaced with silly, non-threatening entertainment. It’s up to “Firemen” to destroy all remaining books, but when one of them finds himself reading a forbidden tome, he questions what he signed up for. Fahrenheit 451 is available at Barnes & Noble and local bookstores.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)
Samuel R. Delany won the Nebula award at 23 years old for Babel-17, a story that used sci-fi to explore queer identity and the power of language. Starship captain and poet Rydra Wong is tasked with deciphering an enemy code called Babel-17, only to discover it’s actually a language that, once learned, has the ability to alter perceptions and physical abilities. Delany is famous for experimenting with syntax, perspective, and presentation—like in his more-famous novel, Dhalgren—but Babel-17 is where his poetic approach to language in science fiction really shines. Babel-17 is available as a digital book at Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
Cat Country (Māochéngjì) by Lao She (1933)
China has a robust history of producing science fiction, with most of it emerging after the Chinese civil war. However, there are a few examples of Chinese science fiction before the rise of the People’s Republic of China, with Cat Country being one of the most notable. The satirical novel is about a Chinese man who crash-lands on Mars only to find it’s a planet ruled by cat people. The dystopian work wasn’t well received at the time but has since gone on to be praised for how it satirized growing unrest in China and the rise of communism. Cat Country is available as a digital book at Amazon.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is famous, but you might be surprised how little resemblance many adaptations bear to the original novella. It centers around a legal practitioner named Gabriel John Utterson who becomes concerned with his friend Henry Jekyll’s strange behavior. It turns out he has created a serum to turn himself into a selfish person who can indulge his worse impulses without feeling guilty—but this alternate half, Hyde, soon grows out of control. You can read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for free here.
Nine Lives by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
No, it’s not a cat pun. This novelette, first published in Playboy, is considered one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s only attempts at “hard-core science fiction,” and it holds up decades later. It tells the story of two mining scouts on a remote planet who are forced to work with 10 clones sent to them by the mining company. The story explores the ethics of cloning, as well as workers’ rights and exploitation. It’s also set to be adapted into a movie starring Common and Johnny Lee Miller. You can read it for free here.
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