Stories as Mirrors to Society

The Enduring Legacy of Science Fiction Masterworks

If you ask anyone to name the top ten most influential books, they might be surprised at how many science fiction books they list. This is partly because science fiction as a literary genre has been notoriously difficult to define. Is it aliens, technology, or a vision of the future that make a story, “science fiction?” Isaac Asimov defines it as “a branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” This is a very concise way to describe such a huge literary genre, which itself contains over a dozen subgenres. With this definition in mind, let’s look at some of we believe are the most influential works of science fiction, and how these stories have shaped our society.

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley

Shelley’s first major work, Frankenstein was not well-received during her lifetime, but has become an enduring classic nonetheless. Her idea came about because of a challenge she and her friends, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, took on to write the best ghost story. Due to the enduring success of the novel, we think she won hands-down (though, admittedly, Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t a ghost).

Frankenstein Cover
Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was 18

Arguably the first science fiction novel, it deals with the use of science to achieve something that had never been accomplished before, and the perils of scientific progress. Dr. Frankenstein tried to play God but it backfired spectacularly. Shelley introduced to the idea of the mad scientist, and got everyone talking about the ethics of scientific experimentation and progress.

The Time Machine (1895) – H.G. Wells

Speaking of scientific experimentation, H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine (1895), popularized the idea of time travel, and introduced the idea of a future dying Earth, a popular subgenre of modern science fiction. Often read as a critique of the then-popular utopian novels, as well as a critique of the class system, Wells shares with us a possible vision for the future: technology has freed humans from needing to work. The Time Traveller has come upon a utopian society, free from the struggles of modern society. Or so he thought.

The Time Machine
H.G. Wells wrote more than 50 novels in his lifetime

While The Time Machine was not the first novel to include time travel, it was the first one to do so in which the method of travel was arrived at by scientific means. It created a realistic and plausible method of time travel to the populace, as well as the various trappings that go along with it (the consequences of changing the past, the fear of being stuck in an alternate time, or a possible erasure from existence).

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell

One of the most popular dystopian science fiction novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published after World War II, and in the midst of the Second Red Scare, many were looking to the multitude of possible futures. George Orwell provided the masses with one very stark, very possible, future of Big Brother. Exploring themes of mass surveillance, invasion of privacy, and compulsory service to society, the ideas of Nineteen Eighty-Four, rooted in the author’s own political views, still reverberate today. Without Orwell we wouldn’t have the words, “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” “groupthink,” “Thought Police,” or “thoughtcrime.” The novel set the stage for other prominent dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men. Many still view the novel in a Nostradomian way, believing that Orwell may have done too good of a job in trying to predict the future.

1984
Orwell coined the term ‘cold war’ in an essay in 1945

I, Robot (1950) – Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s classic tales of robots introduced the world to the Three Laws of robots (see picture below), and got society thinking about the ethics of humans and robots (which is interesting, considering the word robot comes from the Czech robota, meaning slave). Robots were not a new invention, and the idea of autonomous machines had been captivating the populace for generations. The way Asimov portrayed the struggles between humans and robots, and how he conveyed a robot’s humanity, as it were, are what has endured from his seminal works.

Asimov's Three Laws

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury’s dystopia, Fahrenheit 451, dealt with concerns of mass censorship and the suppression of dissident ideas.  Indeed, it was contempt of technology and mass media that led the book-loving Bradbury to pen his masterpiece. The protagonist, a book burning “fireman” loses his convictions about the benefits of burning books and turns to the preservation of them instead. Fahrenheit 451 had a rapt audience in 1953 as a mirror to modern society in the McCarthy era. Bradbury’s lessons still reverberate within popular culture today as a cautionary tale about conformity and the evils of government censorship.

Fahrenheit 451 Cover
Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 was highly censored and banned in many schools and libraries

Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) – Robert Heinlein

During the 60s and 70s, science fiction writers were beginning to experiment with the genre, pushing the boundaries on what was appropriate and attempting to cater to a more literary and artistic crowd. One of the authors in the vanguard of this movement was Robert Heinlein. With his controversial Stranger in a Strange Land, we see a man, born on Mars, who must return to Earth and integrate with society. The fictional religious cult that Heinlein created in the story, the Church of All Worlds, advocated polyamory and social liberation, and created quite a controversy when the book was published.

Stranger in a Strange Land
Heinlein actually didn’t think his novel was “science fiction,” but a sociopolitical allegory

Not only did Heinlein coin the beautiful word “grok” (which means, simply, “to drink,” but more completely “to comprehend, love, and be at one with”), but he also can be credited with inventing the concept of the waterbed–which may possibly be one of the worst inventions in all of human history (sorry, 80s kids).

Dune (1965) – Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert was another author who pushed the boundaries of science fiction. In his infamous Dune, Herbert created a more detailed and complex world and society than any other science fiction author had attempted before. His debut novel is now regarded as one of the best selling science fiction novels of all time, and in the year it was published it won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Going beyond the convention of science fiction’s focus on technology, Herbert strove to create a new, believable world and society, with its own traditions, mores, and distinct personality. A truly artistic piece of literature, exploring the interactions of politics, religion, ecology, and human emotion, Herbert invariably set the stage for future science fiction epics.

Dune Cover
Dune was originally rejected by over 20 publishers. Oops!

The Left Hand of Darkness (1968) – Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin began her writing career as a fantasy author and poet. Recognizing the potential for success if she changed her focus (and because she had been having difficulty making a name for herself), she tried her hand at science fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness was one novel born from this endeavor, and through it she gained critical acclaim (she earned the Nebula and Hugo for it the year it was published), and created several new subgenres of science fiction in the process. Le Guin incorporated ideas of feminism and gender in her strongly anthropological stories, and The Left Hand of Darkness stands as the most famous examination of androgyny in science fiction.

Left Hand of Darkness Cover
Le Guin was the second author—and the first female author—to win both the Hugo and Nebula Award for a single book

What other works of science fiction do you think deserve to be added to our list? We love talking about books, so share your favorite classic works of science fiction in the comments below!